Friday, March 30, 2007

Costumes by Frederick's of Hyboria

Is it Friday already? Great Caesar's ghost, it's been a challenging week.

But, as we all know, there's nothing that perks up the spirits like some gorgeous comic art. So let's get to it.

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of comics artist Marshall Rogers, who passed away unexpectedly this week at the age of 57.

Although Rogers illustrated a diverse range of comic book heroes — from the Silver Surfer to Mister Miracle — during his four-decade career, he'll be mostly remembered for his work on various Batman titles. Several bloggers have opined this week that Rogers's interpretation of Batman is second only to that of the great Neal Adams. Myself, I'd rank the late Jim Aparo next after Adams among Batman artists, but Rogers was indeed awfully good. I'd also place his take on Doctor Strange right after Frank Brunner's and Geof Isherwood's.

My heartfelt condolences to Marshall's family, and to his legion of fans.

In one of Mad Magazine's Christmas carol parodies many moons ago, the following couplet appeared in the lyrics (by writer Frank Jacobs, if memory serves) to a twisted rewrite of "Deck the Halls":
There's no reason to be nervous;
You can trust the Postal Service.
I've quoted that line facetiously more times than I can count, and it finally came back to bite me.

A few weeks ago, I received in the mail a package of new art from the preternaturally talented MC Wyman. Somewhere between Wyman's home in Pennsylvania and mine in sunny California, the minions of the USPS had dunked the package in water. I don't just mean that the package had gotten a tiny bit damp — the doggoned thing was sufficiently waterlogged to have survived a battle between Aquaman and the Sub-Mariner. Both the packing material and the artworks inside were thoroughly soaked.

As fortune would have it, Wyman's pictures sailed through the ordeal unblemished, although the art boards on which they were drawn are irreparably warped. Eventually, I'll commission one of my favorite inkers to transfer the images to new material. But for the time being, these will do.

Some time back, the proprietor of my friendly neighborhood comic book shop posed a rather startling question to me: "Why don't you have any Red Sonja art?" The query was occasioned by the fact that I'm one of the shop's most ardent Red Sonja readers, as well as a collector of original artwork featuring most of my other favorite comics heroines. But I didn't have a single Red Sonja in my galleries.

After I fumbled for a snappy answer that never came, I immediately decided that this inadvertent omission had to be addressed. Thanks to MC Wyman, it now has been. Kathy, this one's for you.

An intriguing dollop of Red Sonja history: Most comics readers presume that Red Sonja was created by Robert E. Howard, the auteur behind Conan the Barbarian. In fact, although Marvel Comics writer-editor Roy Thomas retrofitted the name of a Howard character (the differently spelled Red Sonya of Rogatino, who carried pistols instead of a sword) to his blade-slinging Hyrkanian heroine, Red Sonja as we know and adore her today was entirely the creation of Thomas and legendary artist Barry Windsor-Smith. Artists Esteban Maroto and John Buscema share the credit for devising Sonja's technically implausible, yet undeniably fetching, scale-mail costume.

Today, Sonja's monthly adventures — along with a plethora of associated miniseries and single-issue titles — are published by Dynamite Entertainment, with writer Michael Avon Oeming and artist Mel Rubi forming the key creative team.

And, since it's humanly impossible to have too many sword-packing women in metal brassieres, here's Wyman's take on another of my favorite heroines from 1970s Marvel, the Valkyrie.

That's your Comic Art Friday.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

American Idol '07: Top Ten

Now that we know who will comprise the cast of this summer's American Idol Tour — you've already bought your tickets, right? — it's time to review the final decad of hopefuls and see how they stack up. It's truly anyone's guess as to the order in which some of the lesser lights will depart the big stage — let's be frank; we didn't expect some of these karaoke kings and queens to still be in the running at this juncture — but if I ruled the FOX front office, here's how it might go down.
  • Sanjaya. Every season, there's one no-talent male pretender who makes it far deeper into the contest than he has any right. This year's Kevin Covais (or Jon Peter Lewis, if you prefer) is this kid who's channeling Leif Garrett's '70s hair, Michael Jackson's whispery androgeny, and the goofy adolescent grin of practically every member of Menudo.

  • Haley. I'd have bet krugerrands against Krispy Kremes that Pageant Girl would have bitten the proscenium dust weeks ago. It's a wonder what a backless, braless top and a pair of Daisy Dukes can accomplish for one's vote totals.

  • Chris Richardson. Man, I hate listening to this guy sing. His voice is dull to the point of atonality, and that biting nasal timbre sets my molars on edge. And frankly, I don't see much in the way of performance skills, either. His ship has sailed.

  • Phil. That Phil is still in the hunt — and deservedly so, given the competition — offers condemning testimony against the quality of this year's Idol field. He's a good but thoroughly unremarkable vocalist, with no realistic hope of selling a CD.

  • Gina. She'd be doing much better without the sloppy pierced-tongue enunciation, the faux-goth crankiness, and the schizophrenic performance style. Enough with the special effects — just sing, girlfriend. That histrionic Rolling Stones cover last week was six kinds of wretched.

  • Blake. I dig the vocal percussion when he breaks that out, but what we've observed in recent weeks is that Blake's singing voice just isn't all that interesting. He's still second-best among the guys, but in this crop, that's really a backhanded compliment.

  • Chris Sligh. I like your voice, Chris, and more often than not, I find you an appealing performer in your own shaggy, shambling way. But the attitude is wearing on me, dawg. Just so you know. You could show a little warmth and genuineness once in a while. But you'll probably be the last male standing.

  • Lakisha. She has a powerful voice, and uses it well. Among the top three ladies, though, she's the least winsome onstage — she doesn't offer a real alternative to Jordin's youthful sweetness or Melinda's aw-shucks appeal. That, I think, will mean the difference.

  • Jordin. From a technical perspective, I think it's fair to say that Jordin is the Idol who has grown the most rapidly throughout the competition cycle to date. Melinda and Lakisha came into the field about as good as they can be — given their respective talents, that's nothing to sneeze at — whereas Jordin keeps improving round after round (sometimes dramatically, as last week's bravura performance showed). She'll give the front-runner a worthy chase.

  • Melinda. How can you not love Melinda? Not only does she have the most developed vocal and performance skills in this field — when she delivers a lyric, you believe every word — but she has staked her claim as one of the most likable contestants in Idol history. Her only risk factor at this point is Jordin picking up the majority of the youth vote when such people as Sanjaya and the two Chrises take their leave.
My forecasting savvy seems to be holding up fairly well — I correctly predicted 10 of this season's Top 12. But amid the insanity that is American Idol, weird things sometimes happen. (And no, I don't just mean Simon Cowell.) We'll know in ten weeks how I fared the rest of the way.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

The way of the wind

Life can be described as a roller coaster ride between joy and heartache. We’ve experienced that ride acutely at our house in the past few days.

First, the joy.

Our only child became a legal adult yesterday. Happy 18th, KM.

Although my memory for events is spotty at best and practically nonexistent at worst, I can recall vividly the moments surrounding my daughter's birth on the Saturday before Easter 1989:
  • My wife's doctor, summoned urgently to the hospital from a supermarket errand — she literally left a cart filled with Easter dinner fixings stranded in the aisle at Safeway — thrusting her head into the delivery room to ask whether she had time to change clothes, only to be told by the attending nurse, "Just barely."

  • The seemingly eternal seconds as the doctor labored to free the umbilical cord that had looped around the baby's neck as she made her way toward daylight.

  • All of the sights, sounds, and smells of the delivery room, from KM's first cry, to the eerie flesh-cutting noise the scissors made in my hand as they dug into and through her umbilical cord.
I can scarcely believe that 18 years have flown past. And even though I realize that this squirming infant whose tiny hand clutched the edge of the scale as she weighed in for the first time has now blossomed into a lovely, intelligent, funny, and curious young woman, it baffles me how it could have happened so quickly.

KJ and I have shared many laughs with — and many tears — for our daughter. We have watched with fascination and trepidation as she has grown and matured. And we could hardly be more proud of the person she has become.

And then, the heartbreak.

On Thursday afternoon, a call from the oncologist confirmed our fears — that the leg pain KJ has suffered for the past few weeks is the result of a metastasis, located in her left hipbone, of the breast cancer for which she was treated six and a half years ago.

As clearly as I recall our daughter’s birth, I remember with equal vividness that day in the fall of 2000 when we first learned that my wife had cancer.

I remember the horror on her face as the surgeon broke the news to her over the telephone.

I remember the blood pounding behind my eardrums as the doctor repeated the diagnosis to me.

And I remember:
  • The two surgeries: first the biopsy, then the radical mastectomy.

  • The numerous physician visits during which I scribbled furiously in my little brown notebook words that I hoped would make sense later.

  • The interminably long hours at the infusion center while KJ received her chemotherapy treatments.

  • Leafing through countless magazines in endless waiting rooms.

  • The terror of a dire present and an inscrutable future.
A very long time ago, a wise king summarized human existence with these words:
In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, or whether both alike will be good. Truly the light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun; but if a man lives many years and rejoices in them all, yet let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. (Ecclesiastes 11:6-8)
The abridged version: Life is uncertain, kid. You've gotta accept the bad with the good.

As a father, I have expansive hopes for my newly adult daughter. I hope that the Lord grants her a long, healthy, and happy life. I hope that she someday finds a great love with a worthy man. I hope that she finds joy and inspiration in all of her pursuits. I hope that she chooses to serve the God who made her faithfully all the days of her life.

Likewise, as a husband, I have expansive hopes for my wife. I hope that she triumphs over this dreaded disease again, even as she did — by God's grace — six years ago. I hope that she, too, will enjoy yet many joyful years of life. I hope that she will live to see all of our hopes for our beloved daughter realized.

Whether any of my hopes for my wife and daughter will be realized, I do not know:
As you do not know what is the way of the wind, or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child, so you do not know the works of God who makes everything. (Ecclesiastes 11:5)
All I can do is pray.

Thanks for listening, friend reader. I promise you something less serious tomorrow.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

WonderCon addendum

Given that I only have time and synaptic energy to generate an abbreviated Comic Art Friday, let's dedicate today's post to the late Calvert DeForest, who passed away this week at age 85.

The diminutive DeForest became an American cultural icon as geeky, brassy-voiced Larry "Bud" Melman on David Letterman's NBC late night show. I'm not usually a fan of gimmick performers, but DeForest's gimmick worked — I always got a kick out of the guy.

RIP, Larry "Bud."

As remarkable as was the haul of newly commissioned comic art that followed me home from WonderCon three weeks ago, said haul wasn't officially completed until this past weekend. Brent Anderson, cocreator (with writer Kurt Busiek) of the postmodern superhero reimagining Astro City, completed this Black Panther drawing on the third day of the convention. Brent, who lives right here in Sonoma County, generously arranged to hand-deliver the finished art to my local comic shop last Saturday. The results more than make up for the brief wait.

I chose Brent to create the latest addition to my T'Challa gallery because my earliest recollection of his work stems from his stint as the artist on Marvel's jungle action series Ka-Zar in the late 1970s. As you can see, he hasn't lost the feeling.

In the late '80s, Brent also drew one of the most unusual superhero series ever published by either of the Big Two: Strikeforce: Morituri, the bizarre yet intriguing saga of a project to turn human volunteers into superheroes — a process which, unfortunately, also made the volunteers terminally ill. (The motto of the project was the Latin phrase Morituri te salutant -- "We who are about to die salute you.")

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What's Up With That? #46: No Tiggers allowed

Over the hill in Napa, a lawsuit is brewing against the local school district because an eighth-grader got busted for wearing Tigger socks.

Considering some of the trouble Tigger's gotten his striped self into recently, perhaps this makes a peculiar kind of sense.

Toni Kay Scott, a 14-year-old honor student, has been cited more than a dozen times for wearing apparel in violation of the Napa school district's dress code, which forbids denim (the only fabrics permitted are cotton twill, chino, and corduroy) as well as clothing bearing words or images of any kind — including Pooh's lovable spring-tailed tiger friend. Napa's school-going youth are also prohibited from wearing any items outside a narrow color palette that includes blue, white, green, yellow, khaki, gray, brown, and black. (They're not exactly embracing sartorial diversity over in Napa.)

As a parent, I understand the school district's concern about gang colors, potentially offensive T-shirts, immodest clothing, and such like. But seriously, people — Tigger socks?

I'd hope the folks in charge of spending my tax dollars to educate my child and the other offspring of our community would have more important tasks on which to focus than punting a kid out of class for wearing Disney-print hosiery.

The last time I checked, the Crips and the Norteños weren't using Pooh and Piglet as insignia.

But wouldn't it be a happier world if they did?

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Spring me, baby

As the great Tom Lehrer once sang:
Spring is here, spring is here;
Life is skittles, and life is beer --
I think the loveliest time of the year is the spring.
I do. Don't you? 'Course you do.
Except for the fact that I don't either play skittles (the English bowling game) or eat them (the colorful fruit-flavored candies), and that I don't drink beer.

I baked some snickerdoodles to celebrate, instead. (I'm a snickerdoodle dandy. Snickerdoodle do or die.) I'd offer you a couple, along with a mug of steaming hot Hills Bros. Original Blend, but alas, you're not here. So I'll eat your snickerdoodles and drink your coffee for you. Mmmm... that's tasty.

Happy Vernal Equinox to all our friends in the northern hemisphere!

Happy Autumnal Equinox to anyone dialing in from the southern hemisphere!

And to anyone in, say, Ecuador or Equatorial Guinea (the latter of which, oddly enough, isn't actually on the equator — it's entirely north of it)... Happy another sweltering day of tropical heat!

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Jeopardy! — like kissing your twin sisters

Since I always get inundated with queries after any major event occurs on Jeopardy!, I presume that some of you are wondering about my take on the show's unprecedented three-player tie game last night.

Wonder no more.

First, let's catch up the latecomers in the group. On the Jeopardy! episode that aired Friday, March 16, defending champion Scott Weiss (I'll wait a moment for the Rocky Horror fans to stop hissing) led going into the Final Jeopardy round with a score of $13,400. Each of Scott's opponents, Jamey Kirby and Anders Martinson, had exactly $8,000. Both Jamey and Anders risked their entire bankrolls on the Final Jeopardy clue, answered correctly, and doubled their scores to $16,000. After Scott's correct response was revealed, we discovered that he had wagered $2,600, upping his score to $16,000 and creating the first three-winner game in Jeopardy! history.

Now, suppose I had found myself in Scott's position. Would I have bet for the tie?

Simple answer: No. For three reasons:
  1. I always played Jeopardy! to win (even in the two games — in Super Jeopardy! and Round Two of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions — in which victory had become increasingly unlikely by the time Final Jeopardy arrived), and would again if I had another opportunity. To do otherwise makes a mockery of the game, in my opinion. (Try to imagine a Super Bowl coach playing for a tie.) Nothing frustrates me as a viewer more than seeing a front-running J! contestant lose a game or end up in a tie situation for no other reason than a failure to bet adequately — an embarrassment that occurs all too often on the show.

  2. As a defending champion, I would much rather play my next game against two first-time players than against two opponents with an entire game's worth of stage confidence and buzzer practice. That's the main reason why the Jeopardy! contestant staff always counsels players never to play for the tie. If you've earned the champion's advantage with a prior victory or two, why would you want to minimize that edge?

  3. Frankly, it would never have occurred to me. My statistical analysis skills suck. (For my money, today's players think way too much about wagering strategies. But that's just me.)
None of this is intended to be critical of Scott, who seems like a decent fellow who saw an opportunity to make a little game show history and seized it. (He explains this himself over on the Jeopardy! discussion forums.) It's just not the way I would have played it.

If either Jamey or Anders wins Monday's game, Scott may rethink his decision.

Or he may not.

(Point of order: Last night's show was not, as has been widely reported, the first three-way tie in modern Jeopardy! history. On September 11, 1984, during the first week of the Alex Trebek era, there was a game in which all three contestants finished with zero scores. Weiss-Kirby-Martinson I was the first game with a positive three-way tie, and thus three cochampions.)

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Dark and stormy Knights

Comic Art Friday bids a happy birthday to Gilmore Girls star Lauren Graham, who turns 40 today. Ms. Graham would make a pretty decent Wonder Woman, assuming that abortive film project ever gets off the ground.

Today's featured artwork is yet another installment in my Common Elements series. The linking thread in this Common Elements drawing is a shade more obvious than the last few we've displayed. Artist MC Wyman, that Marvel Comics stalwart of the mid-'90s, teams a dynamic duo of Marvel heroes: Dane Whitman, the Black Knight, and pistol-packing super-detective Misty Knight. ("Black Knights"... get it? I crack me up.)

The Black Knight has been a second-tier player in the Marvel Universe for almost as long as I've been reading comics. He made his first appearance in Avengers #47, way back in 1967, and was featured on the cover of the following issue. The Knight was one of the few super-types of that era for whom having the word "Black" in his handle did not constitute a statement of racial identity.

Since the '60s, Dane has shown up fairly regularly throughout the Marvel line, usually in association with the Avengers — although most recently he could be seen in the pages of New Excalibur, hanging out with the United Kingdom's favorite squad of mutant heroes.

Misty Knight — she of the bionic arm and ever-changing 'do — has long been a personal favorite of mine, and it's a real treat to enjoy her adventures in the current series Heroes for Hire. One of the first African American heroines in comics, Misty was originally intended as a comic book version of the type of streetwise character played by actress Pam Grier in such blaxploitation cinema classics as Foxy Brown, Coffy, and Friday Foster.

For years Misty and her business partner, Colleen Wing (together they owned the Knightwing Restorations detective agency), could often be seen battling evildoers alongside Luke Cage (in his Hero for Hire / Power Man days) and Iron Fist (with whom Misty enjoyed a tumultuous romantic relationship) under the code name Daughters of the Dragon. Now that Knightwing has morphed into Heroes for Hire, Inc., Misty and Colleen lead a team that includes such rebels as Felicia Hardy, aka the Black Cat, and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu.

One of the few published artworks in my collection is Misty's character model sheet from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Master Edition. Pencil artist Keith Pollard and inker Joe Rubinstein created hundreds of these model sheets, but I'm especially pleased to own this one.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Open All Night

Anyone familiar with my television viewing habits knows that I'm not much of a sitcom fan. I don't believe I've watched a situation comedy with any regularity since The Cosby Show was in its heyday. Even then, I didn't watch often.

There is, however, one sitcom that retains a cherished corner in my recollection, more than 25 years after it last aired. Even then, the fond memories are due more to the show's theme song — which still echoes in my cranium a quarter-century later — than to the program itself.

The show in question was Open All Night, a short-lived laffer from the early 1980s. As one might surmise from the title, Open All Night took place in a 24-hour convenience market (called "the 364 Store" because it was open every day except Christmas).

George Dzundza — later Detective Max Greevey in the debut season of Law & Order — starred as hapless Gordon Feester, the cranky yet lovable shlub who managed the store. Indie film goddess Susan Tyrrell played Gordon's airhead wife Gretchen, while talented character actor Sam Whipple (who passed away from cancer a few years ago, at the too-young age of 41) often stole the show with dry humor as Gretchen's slacker son Terry. Ex-NFL star Bubba Smith — then a hot TV property thanks to a popular series of Miller Lite beer commercials that paired him with Dick Butkus — played Robin, Gordon's assistant manager who ran the graveyard shift.

Open All Night derived most of its comedy from the motley assortment of folks who wandered into the 264 Store during the wee hours. If you've ever found yourself in a 7-11 after the local taverns lock down, you'll get the idea. David Letterman (as himself) dropped by during one memorable episode, to promote his new late night talk show. Even Cassandra Peterson — today admired by millions of horny fanboys as horror film hostess Elvira — showed up, albeit without sporting either her vampire queen drag or her bountiful cleavage. Where better for the future Mistress of the Dark to make a guest appearance than on a show called Open All Night?

As I recall, the show started off well with several hilarious early episodes, then began to peter out toward the end of its only season. But then, as I noted previously, there was that theme song. (Remember theme songs? They used to be my favorite feature of television. When I was a kid, I used to tape theme music straight from the TV speakers with my little reel-to-reel recorder, then splice in clips of myself in Casey Kasem mode introducing each selection.)

Many series back in the day attempted to summarize the gist of the show in the opening montage. None accomplished the feat as completely or as cleverly as Open All Night, which combined a catchy, piano-driven 1940s-style vocal hook with lyrics that burrowed into the human consciousness like deer ticks, never to be dislodged. Imagine the Andrews Sisters mated with Shel Silverstein, after guzzling a tankful of espresso.

Click the image below, and you can sing along yourself:

This is the story of Gordon Feester
Born in Ohio the day before Easter
Had a normal childhood, did okay in school
Graduated from Columbus High in 1962
Now he's open all night, open all night

Went away to college but he didn't do that good
So the Army drafted him and he got sent to Fort Hood
Served a two-year hitch, never went overseas
Spent a year peeling potatoes and a year copping Z's
Now he's open all night, open all night

Then old Gordon sort of drifted this way and that
At times he had some money, other times he was flat
He always seemed to manage, though he never saved a cent
Sure, it was a struggle, but he always paid the rent
Now he's open all night (yeah!), open all night

That takes us up to 1974
And now old Gordon runs a grocery store
With a wife named Gretchen who hangs around the house
And her son named Terry by a previous spouse
Gordon sits behind the counter, in hock up to his nose
In a dither, in a pickle, in a store that's never closed
And he's open all night, open all night...
Open all night...
Open all night...
Open all night...
Open all night...

I wonder what George Dzundza's up to these days. Or nights, as the case may be.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Adonal Foyle: American

Everyone here at SSTOL congratulates longtime Golden State Warriors center Adonal Foyle, who today became a naturalized citizen of these United States.

Unlike many pro athletes these days, Foyle is a genuine role model — an all-around good guy who's active in charitable causes and enjoys a spotless reputation both as a player and as a human being. He's a magna cum laude graduate of Colgate University, and is pursuing a master's degree in sports psychology at John F. Kennedy University.

Six years ago, Foyle founded Democracy Matters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that "gives college students a voice in the pro-democracy movement, and an active role in the national dialogue on money in politics." He has twice won the NBA's Community Assist Award for his efforts to serve and enlighten young people.

I'm delighted to call Adonal my countryman. We could use a few thousand more just like him.

This, alongside Golden State's snapping of the Dallas Mavericks' 17-game winning streak last night, makes me proud once again to be a Warrior Worrier.

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They're dropping like flies

Death must be in the air these days, and I don't believe it's just the stench of human decomp wafting over from Abby Chapel of the Redwoods.

Let's pause for a moment to reflect on some of the passages we've noted recently...
  • When wine mogul Ernest Gallo, the 297th richest person in America, died last week at the ripe old vintage of 97, my thoughts turned to his younger brother Joseph, who passed away about three weeks earlier.

    Joseph Gallo owned a cheesemaking enterprise known today as Joseph Farms. (Good stuff, as stock American-made cheese goes. We buy Joseph Farms products quite often.) Originally, the company was called Joseph Gallo Cheese. Ernest and Julio Gallo, however, didn't like the fact that their junior brother was slapping the family name on his dairy output, so they sued Little Joe over the rights to the Gallo moniker... and won. Thus Joseph Gallo — despite being every bit the Gallo his elder siblings were, genetically speaking — was legally estopped from using his own name on his cheese.

    Blood may be thicker than water, but wine is thicker than either.

  • Wow... Richard Jeni. There's been any number of comedians whose lives played out like horror headlines waiting to be written — Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze, Sam Kinison, and Mitch Hedberg are just a handful of the names that leap to mind — but Jeni didn't seem like that kind of guy.

    Jeni always seemed amazingly normal for a comic, and his wry observations about life were earnest and easily to identify with. Whatever his demons were, they didn't surface in his comedy to any pathological degree.

    Maybe that would have helped.

  • Most casual comic books readers likely never knew who writer Arnold Drake was. To the cognoscenti, Drake was a legend — an iconoclastic creative talent who specialized in unique ideas and good old-fashioned fun.

    In the realm of superhero comics, Drake's best-known creations reflected his wonky sensibility: Doom Patrol, which was kind of like the X-Men as seen through a funhouse mirror, and Deadman, the bizarre tale of a murdered circus acrobat who wandered the earth hunting his killer. But Drake was more than just a scribe of muscular, slam-bang fantasy — he also invented a clever comedy series called Stanley and His Monster that in many elements prefigured the later Calvin and Hobbes. Drake also wrote dozens of issues of Little Lulu.

    I sat in on Drake's delightful showcase panel at WonderCon two years ago. The man knew where all the industry's bodies were buried, and he knew how to tell a great story. I'm grateful now that I took the opportunity to see him in person while he was still among us. He was a genuine treasure.

  • I felt a twinge of sadness when I heard some time ago that the Stardust Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas had shuttered. That twinge hit again as I read the news this morning about the old joint being imploded to make room for a new megadevelopment. By the time of its demise, the Stardust wasn't the swankiest joint on the Strip, but it sure held a history.

    KJ and I enjoyed a terrific evening at the Stardust some years back. We dined at the 'Dust's resident outlet of Tony Roma's Ribs, then caught a pretty decent production show called Enter the Night. Of course, the show that made the Stardust famous, Lido de Paris, was long gone by then, its stars Siegfried and Roy having jumped ship for the Mirage several years earlier. But we had a nice time anyway.

    I'm told that the Stardust's legendary sign, at one time the largest display on the Strip, has been preserved by the Neon Museum in Vegas. As for the Stardust itself, the lights are out, and the party's over.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Dazed and WonderConfused

I haven't yet seen any official attendance figures for last week's WonderCon, but take it from a guy who was there for the first two days of the three-day event: A veritable sea of humanity (and perhaps other lifeforms as well) poured into San Francisco's Moscone Center South for the Bay Area's largest annual geekfest.

My WonderCon weekend began on Friday at 9 a.m. deep in the bowels of the convention center, where I spent two hours preshow as a WonderCon volunteer. My assignment: stuffing plastic swag bags to be handed out to attendees upon arrival. In truth, there wasn't much actual stuffing. Only two items went into each bag: (1) a pin advertising the science fiction movie The Last Mimzy (coming soon to a multiplex near you); and (2) a postcard-sized flier advertising an indie flick entitled Yesterday Was a Lie (probably coming direct on DVD to a Best Buy near you).

I was supposed to be on stuffing detail for three hours, but we ran out of bags and stuffing paraphernalia around 11 a.m. My responsibilities thus fulfilled, I gratefully accepted my complimentary admission badge, then spent the remaining hour before the convention opened waiting for my insanely hot cup of Peet's coffee to cool to potable temperature.

At last the doors opened, and I joined the throng that flooded onto the main floor. I made a beeline — as least, as much of a beeline as a middle-aged fat guy can make in the midst of a whelming crowd — to Artists' Alley.

With a handful of previous con experiences under my belt, I knew in advance that the best approach for success in acquiring new art at a comic con is a carefully crafted battle plan. Before the event, I reviewed the roster of attending artists, and developed a prioritized shopping list of artists from whom I wanted to commission drawings, along with the character I wanted each to draw. Of course, the Robert Burns rule came into effect immediately, as neither of the first two artists on my list had yet arrived by the time I reached their tables. So, I dashed about lining up other commissions while keeping an eye peeled for the latecomers. Both soon turned up, and by the time I headed off to my first panel at 2 p.m., the first several items on my list were checked off.

I spent three delightful hours listening to panel discussions moderated by the redoubtable Mark Evanier, a prolific writer for both comics and television. (Mark is also one of my blogging heroes; if you're not reading his News From ME, your life is seriously lacking.) Mark missed WonderCon last year due to a sudden illness, but he was back in form this year. Actually, he appeared in significantly smaller form this year, having recently shed 110 pounds by way of gastric bypass surgery.

I thoroughly enjoyed Mark's chats with comic writer and historian Gerard Jones (whose panel I attended at last year's WonderCon, and was kind enough to autograph my well-thumbed copies of his books The Comic Book Heroes and Men of Tomorrow), cartoonist extraordinaire Sergio Aragonés of MAD Magazine fame (one of the most personable human beings you'll ever run across), and longtime MAD editor Al Feldstein, whose Friday panel focused on his pre-MAD years as artist, writer, and editor for the notorious EC Comics of the 1950s.

By the end of Friday's festivities, I had three and one-half commissions in hand (I'll explain in a minute) and still more on waiting lists for Saturday. Friday's haul included...

* Delivery of the Hellboy/Hellcat Common Elements artwork that Tom Hodges completed in advance of the con.

It was a treat to meet Tom and his wife (that's her elbow and purple sneaker at left) in person. I had hoped to catch Tom's panel on Star Wars art, but I was still frantically lining up commissions when the discussion kicked off at 1 p.m. Friday.

* A new Common Elements commission penciled by Ron Lim, featuring Spider-Man and the Manhattan Guardian. (The common element: Both characters worked for newspapers in civilian life: Spidey/Peter Parker at the Daily Bugle; Guardian/Jake Jordan at — not coincidentally — the Manhattan Guardian.)

I'd never attempted a CE at a con before, given the time constraints. I knew that Ron could pull it off, given that he drew another two-character (Captain America and the U.S. Agent) sketch for me two years ago at WonderCon.

Getting Ron's terrific pencil art done was only half the battle, though. On Saturday, I hoped to ask inker Danny Bulanadi (a no-show on Friday, but his representative Frank assured me Danny would be at his table all day Saturday) to finish the piece.

By the way, Ron and his wife recently welcomed a new baby to their family. Congratulations, Lims!

* This jaw-dropping depiction of Taarna by the artist known as Buzz.

I'm always delighted to see Buzz at a con, not only because I love his art — one of the most distinctive stylists of his generation, in my never-humble opinion — but also because he's one of my favorite artists to talk with. Buzz (who I'm certain has an actual name, though I have no idea what it is) has a point of view about everything under the sun, and isn't shy about sharing his thoughts about the comic industry, his fellow artists, and even world events.

Buzz's eyes lit up when I handed him the reference scan of Taarna. This was his first opportunity to draw her for a commission — he admitted having drawn her a time or two for his own amusement — and he poured his heart and soul into this artwork. This was the only piece Buzz worked on all day Friday, and the result is stunning.

* A dramatic pencil sketch of Wonder Woman, by the criminally underrated Paul Ryan.

I knew from reading his Web site before the con that Paul — who's best probably known for his work on Fantastic Four — enjoys drawing our favorite Amazon. Thus, this assignment was a natural fit. I watched him start this piece several times before he finally hit on the concept he wanted to finish. It turned out beautifully. I'm always thrilled when an artist shows a character doing something visually interesting, rather than the familiar stock poses.

Paul, his charming wife Linda, and their daughter Heather were as nice as pie, to use a hoary cliché — lovely people, gracious and extremely accommodating to Paul's many fans. This picture of Paul, by the way, was taken by Heather, who just may have a budding career in photography.

So that was Friday.

Saturday — a day when seemingly half the population of the Bay Area crammed into Moscone South — found me making numerous surreptitious checks on the progress of my remaining commissions (at least, I hope the artists thought they were surreptitious), and browsing the numerous vendor stalls on the convention floor. I broke up the day with a two-block stroll over to the Westfield Center's food court for lunch — silly me for thinking a Saturday afternoon would be any less congested at San Francisco's newest and largest mall — and by catching a few excellent panels.

The two highlights among the latter were a MAD Magazine showcase with Mark Evanier hosting Al Feldstein and Sergio Aragonés...

...and a fascinating discussion of the process of translating comics to television animation. This informative and fast-paced chatfest featured the insights of one of my writing heroes, Dwayne McDuffie (Static Shock, Justice League Unlimited), along with fellow scribes Adam Beechen (Teen Titans), Stan Berkowitz (Legion of Super-Heroes), Greg Weisman (Gargoyles, the upcoming reimagining of the animated Spider-Man), and moderator Shannon Muir (Extreme Ghostbusters).

But what really counts is the art, yes? Saturday's pickups included...

* Danny Bulanadi's embellishment in ink of Ron Lim's Spider-Man / Manhattan Guardian commission.

Danny did a bang-up job inking over Ron's pencils. I took the finished piece back to Ron for his approval, and he, too, was pleased with Danny's work. (Ron also re-signed the piece in ink, so his signature would match the rest of the finished art.) Both Danny and his representative Frank were quite friendly, and lots of fun to chat with.

* Taarna, take two: This time, by the wily veteran Tony DeZuniga.

Tony's table was immediately adjacent to Buzz's. Throughout the time Buzz was working on his Taarna masterpiece on Friday, I kept glancing over at the sketches Tony was drawing, and thinking, "I'll bet Tony would do an awesome Taarna, too." And of course, he did.

The above photo was taken by Tony's lovely wife Tina, who insisted on letting some no-talent clown sneak in next to Tony for the money shot.

* A spectacular Storm by the great Phil Noto.

As luck would have it, though, my opening moments frenzy on Friday took me past a table where sat the talented — and always popular — Phil Noto sat, drawing board in hand. Noto hadn't been scheduled to appear at WonderCon, which was the only reason he didn't already have a massive line at his table the instant the doors opened, as he usually does. In fact, there was no one even within spitting distance of Phil's table. (Not that you'd want to spit. It's just an expression.)

I asked Phil if he was taking a commission list. When he answered in the affirmative, I could scarcely restrain my giddiness as I put in my request. On Saturday, Phil came through with a beauty.

* Aaron Lopresti's gorgeous Supergirl, wearing her hip, trendy disco-era costume from the 1970s.

This was, I think, the third con I've attended at which Aaron was a participant. I'd never before been lucky enough to even get on his sketch list, much less actually score a commission from him. As it was, this was the very last piece he finished on Saturday evening, and I was ecstatic that he got it done.

When I asked to take his photo with the art, Aaron laughed and asked, "Should I be holding the money, too?" We mutually agreed that we could do the "money shot" without the actual cash in view. Funny guy, that Mr. Lopresti.

* A cute and vibrant Ms. Marvel, courtesy of Runaways artist Michael Ryan.

I loved Michael's recently concluded run on New Excalibur, so having him draw this piece for me gave me goosebumps. (Okay, that's an exaggeration. But it was pretty cool nonetheless.) Michael's style reminds me a lot of Mike Weiringo, another contemporary artist whose work I admire. I enjoy Scot Eaton, the artist who replaced Michael on New Excalibur (and about whose work Michael was graciously complimentary), but since I don't read Runaways, I've missed Michael's art of late. Now I won't have to.

To Michael's immense credit, he kept plugging away at this drawing even as the rest of Artists' Alley was packing up for the night all around him. When he finished, he seemed concerned that he'd drawn Carol too young-looking (in the comics, she's a woman in her early-to-mid-30s). I assured him she looked just fine to me. He shrugged and said, "I tend to draw every character young, I guess. Or at least, that's what people keep telling me."

With my portfolio bursting with fresh art, and my mind reeling with fond memories of associations new and renewed, I wearily concluded my two-day junket into the dark heart of WonderCon.

My feet still hurt.

One non-comic-related highlight of the convention: I got to meet one of my favorite character actors — Ernie Hudson, who'll forever be remembered as Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters. We chatted briefly about roles of his that I especially enjoyed; in particular, Hawk in the 2001 TV movie Walking Shadow, based on a Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker. I told Ernie that, as much as I enjoyed Avery Brooks's familiar portrayal on Spenser: For Hire, his Hawk more closely fit my mental image of the character from Parker's books. Ernie confessed that Parker had expressed a similar opinion. Great minds think alike.

Oh, yeah — I overheard someone saying that 300, which premiered at WonderCon, is the greatest movie ever made. I'm guessing that person has never seen Citizen Kane. Or Casablanca. Or even Dark City.

And that, at long last concluded, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

We ain't got no body

And now, this public service announcement:

My personal assistant Abby disavows any connection with the proprietors of Abby Chapel of the Redwoods Mortuary, located in our fair burg.

Said proprietors find themselves in all manner of hot water of late, after our dutiful local law enforcement officials discovered nine decomposing corpses that the mortuary had stored in an unrefrigerated warehouse.

If you know anything about the atmospheric and olfactory effects of decomposing corpses, you can probably guess how this little problem was uncovered.

The mortuary was attempting to use a swamp cooler to keep the warehouse temperature sufficiently low, and had sprinkled the bodies with carpet freshening powder to cover any untoward aroma. The stench of decaying human remains suggests exactly how well the swamp cooler and Carpet Fresh accomplished their dubious task.

Our city officials are working with the California State Cemetery and Funeral Bureau to pull Abby Chapel's operating license.

My personal assistant Abby declines any further comment.

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Reason to Despise Modern Comics #25

Captain America, dead?

Yeah, right. They said that about Supergirl, too — 22 years ago.

Needless to say, when I made my weekly pilgrimage to my local comic shop, I did not waste four bucks on Captain America #25.

In my opinion, the Captain America who surrendered like a whipped puppy at the conclusion of Marvel's recent Civil War miniseries, and then was gunned down like a rabid dog in the just-released comic mentioned above, was not really Captain America anyway. I'd have shot that loser myself. The real Cap always went down fighting.

Instead, I prefer to imagine Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada dressed in a Red Skull costume, thus:

There will always be a Captain America.

There may not, however, always be a comic book industry, if they keep pulling stupid publicity stunts like this.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Scooter the scapegoat

To the surprise of practically no one outside the Bush administration, VP Dick Cheney's former flunky Lewis "Scooter" Libby was convicted today on four counts in the Valerie Plame outing scandal — one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury, and one count of lying to the FBI. (Is that last one even a crime?)

What Scootergate proved — if indeed it proved anything — is that the present administration has gone to every extreme possible to manipulate information at the expense of those who disagree with Bush/Cheney policy. It also proved that the Prez and Vice Prez have no compunction about hanging their subordinates out to dry after they've exhausted their usefulness. Just ask Colin Powell.

Scooter Libby took the legal bullet for the team — specifically, for Cheney and Bush's hatchet man Karl Rove. But I'll bet he doesn't get so much as a thank-you or a fare-thee-well from his former boss.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Britney: Call me Antichrist

It's official: Britney Spears has lost her freaking mind.

According to the London-based tabloid News of the World, Britney attempted to commit suicide last week by hanging herself with a bedsheet. This, after scrawling the number 666 on her newly shorn pate and screaming, "I am the Antichrist!"

Tune the Twilight Zone theme, Mr. Serling.

Comedy aside, if some serious intervention doesn't kick into gear, I'm going to be moving all the Britney posts from Spederline to Dead People Got No Reason to Live... and soon.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

It's WonderCon weekend!

That's right, true believers: WonderCon, Northern California's premier comic book convention, invades San Francisco's Moscone Center for three days, beginning today at noon. I'll be making the scene both today and tomorrow — taking in the plethora of colorful sights and sounds; rubbing elbows with the near-famous, the wannabe famous, and the formerly famous; and most importantly, scoring a few new commissioned artworks for my collection.

In next week's Comic Art Friday, I'll deliver a full-blown report on my WonderCon experiences. But today, let me give you a sneak peek at one of the pieces I'll be bringing home.

When I spied the name of Star Wars artist Tom Hodges on WonderCon's guest list a few weeks ago, I shot him a quick e-mail to see whether he planned to accept commissions during the con. Tom wrote back to affirm that he will, indeed, be drawing for the fans here in the Bay Area. He also noted that he had some time available before the con, and if I'd like to preorder some art, he'd complete it at home and bring it to WonderCon with him.

Never one to pass up a golden opportunity, I seized the chance to ask Tom to add a new chapter to my ever-growing Common Elements gallery. Earlier this week, Tom sent me this scan of his spectacular creation, teaming Mike Mignola's signature hero, Hellboy, with Marvel's feline Defender, Hellcat.

My first exposure to Mike Mignola's work actually wasn't connected to either Hellboy, the character for which he's best known, or even to comics at all. Several years ago, Mignola worked as lead character designer on the Disney animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire. When I saw the movie, I was curious about the design style, which struck me as decidedly un-Disney. Upon further investigation, I was chagrined to discover that the artist in question (a Bay Area native, no less) had risen to superstardom during my most recent hiatus from the comics scene, hence my embarrassing lack of familiarity. (Much later, I remembered that Mignola had illustrated a few issues of Power Man and Iron Fist for Marvel in the early '80s, albeit in a markedly different style from his Hellboy work.)

Tom Hodges's work shows a striking amount of Mignola influence, so I knew that he'd be the perfect artist (since, well, I can't afford Mike Mignola) to draw my Hellboy-centric Common Elements piece. As you can see, my instincts were spot-on.

In contrast to Hellboy, Hellcat is a heroine whose history I know quite well. In her everyday identity of Patsy Walker, Hellcat has amassed one of the most convoluted backstories in all of comics. When Patsy first showed up way back in 1944, she wasn't a superhero — she was the star of an entire line of teenage romance and humor comics. think of her as a kind of female version of Archie. The popular Patsy continued her youthful adventures for more than two decades in a number of titles published by Timely Comics, the company that would eventually morph into Marvel in the early 1960s.

Patsy made her first appearance in a superhero story in — coincidentally enough — the first comic book I ever owned: Fantastic Four Annual #3. By the early '70s, she was popping up frequently as the lab assistant of Dr. Hank McCoy, better known as the Beast of the original X-Men. Before long, Patsy adopted the costume formerly worn by another Marvel heroine, the Cat (who by this time had transformed into the were-woman Tigra), and gave herself the code name Hellcat.

Patsy's finest exploits as a crimefighter came as a member of the Defenders, my favorite superhero team of the '70s. Originally a showcase for Marvel's three most iconoclastic headliners — Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk — over time the Defenders became populated by minor-league heroes who didn't own their own titles — notably Nighthawk, the Valkyrie, and our girl Hellcat.

Both Nighthawk and Valkyrie have previously headlined entries in my Common Elements series. Here, Nighthawk teams with Green Lantern Kyle Rayner in a moody scene by horror specialist Kyle Hotz.

Meanwhile, Valkyrie joins the X-Men's Nightcrawler, in this gorgeous pencil rendering by Dave Ross.

Patsy and her new friend Hellboy will come home with me from WonderCon, courtesy of the talented Tom Hodges. I'm looking forward to meeting Tom in person later today.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. I'm off to the con!

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