Friday, September 28, 2007

Marvels vs. Marvels

I hear you out there thinking: How can Uncle Swan top his wicked cool Common Elements theme? You know, the one where he takes two unrelated comic book heroes who share some fact or feature in common, and asks a comic artist to match them up in a visually interesting way. What could possibly be more awesome than that?

Because I refuse, friend reader, to allow you to be disappointed when you wander by this humble blog on Comic Art Friday, I have summoned the definitive answer to your plaintive query.

Meet Common Elements to the Third Power.

Comic fanboys and fangirls have long debated what would happen if certain superheroes, usually those from opposing publishing companies, duked it out. In fact, I've heard these conversations raging at my local comic shop: "If Wolverine and Lobo got into a fight, who would win?"

Of course, my fevered imagination being what it is, I dream bigger than these mundane concerns. I wonder: "Suppose the Marvel Family in DC Comics found out that there was another group of Marvels in a parallel universe. What would happen?"

Fortunately for all of us, artist Luke McDonnell — he of the popular runs on Iron Man, Green Lantern, and my favorite, Suicide Squad — knows exactly how this rumble would throw down. (Click the image below to view a larger version.)

Entering the battle from the left:
  • The original Captain Marvel. When plucky newspaper delivery boy Billy Batson utters the magic word "Shazam!" he transforms into — or switches places with, depending on which writer is telling the story — the World's Mightiest Mortal. (Or, if you prefer, the Big Red Cheese.) The good Captain is endowed with the abilities of six mighty figures of legend: the wisdom of Solomon; the strength of Hercules; the stamina of Atlas; the power of Zeus; the courage of Achilles; and the speed of Mercury. Plus, he looks rather dashing in his red union suit.

  • Mary Marvel. Billy's long-lost sister Mary, who has been known by both the Batson surname and that of her adopted family, the Bromfields, also gains superhuman powers when she says the magic word. Unlike her brother's, Mary's abilities derive from (mostly) female legends: the grace of Selena; the strength of Hippolyta; the skill of Ariadne; the fleetness of Zephyrus (the one male ringer); the beauty of Aurora; and the wisdom of Minerva. (Actually, in current continuity, Mary's powers come from a passel of Egyptian deities. But I say, why mess with success?)

  • Captain Marvel, Jr. Although not a biological relation, Billy's handicapped friend Freddie Freeman inherits a junior-sized portion of the "Shazam!" action when he utters the name "Captain Marvel." (It's like the Happy Meal of superpowers.) Due to the unique method by which he powers up, Freddie is perhaps the only superhero in all of comicdom who can't say his own code name without losing his mojo. He's also the subject of one of comics' all-time conundrums: If you were crippled, and you could heal yourself by speaking a magic phrase, why in the name of Mac Raboy would you ever want to change back? Despite these oddities, Freddie is so cool that he was the favorite superhero of The King: Elvis Presley styled his hair and modeled several of his familiar onstage ensembles after Captain Marvel, Jr.'s 'do and duds.
Charging into the fray from the right:
  • The Marvel Comics hero known as Captain Marvel. Unlike his predecessor, this Captain Marvel is an actual captain, in the Imperial Militia of the spacefaring race called the Kree. Mar-Vell (as his mom and dad named him) found himself stranded on Earth after a falling-out with his superiors — the Kree wanted to conquer our planet, while Mar-Vell wanted to save it. For several years in the '70s, Mar-Vell shared a similar spatial relationship with Marvel Comics' perennial sidekick Rick Jones as that between the other Captain and Billy Batson. When Rick clanged together the high-tech bracelets (called nega-bands) on his wrists, he freed Mar-Vell from the Negative Zone, effectively changing places in the space-time continuum with him.

  • Ms. Marvel. U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers had been an established supporting character in the Marvel Universe for nearly a decade before she got zapped by a piece of Kree tech known as the psyche-magnitron, gaining superpowers and a nifty costume inspired by Mar-Vell's. Over the years, Carol's powers have gone through more revisions than Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, so I'm fairly certain that the Kree connection disappeared long ago. She even changed her code name to Binary, then to Warbird, for a while, and her Kree-inspired outfit is ancient history. But she's always Ms. Marvel to me.

  • The second Marvel Comics Captain Marvel. Monica Rambeau, a lieutenant with the New Orleans Harbor Patrol in those pre-Katrina days of yesteryear, was dubbed "Captain Marvel" after she acquired superpowers from an extradimensional energy device. Only later did Monica learn that another hero (in her universe, anyway) already called first dibs on that name. Fortunately for Monica, Mar-Vell had died of cancer by this time, so the title was up for grabs. As it turned out, she later ditched the Captain Marvel nomenclature in favor of a series of other code designations, and eventually reverted to simply calling herself by her real name. A good thing, since Mar-Vell was recently resurrected and reclaimed his former title.
Those of you unfamiliar with comics history may well be wondering how we came to this multiple Captain Marvel situation in the first place. Interesting story, that. In brief, DC Comics (known then as National Publications) sued Fawcett, the original publishers of Captain Marvel, back in the 1940s, for violating their trademark on the character Superman, whom Captain Marvel closely resembled. After many years of legal shenanigans, DC won the argument, and Fawcett agreed to discontinue publishing Captain Marvel comics. (The company got out of the comics business altogether before long, as the market for superheroes had pretty much petered out.) DC later purchased the copyright to the good Captain and his associates, and began publishing their new adventures in the early 1970s.

By that time, however, Marvel Comics had already pounced upon the vacated "Captain Marvel" trademark (as opposed to copyright, which is a completely different legal issue) and was already publishing the adventures of their mostly different, but identically named, character. If you snooze, you lose, as the kids say.

And so the situation continues to this day. Because Marvel claimed the "Captain Marvel" trademark and kept it active through the years, only they can publish comics including the phrase Captain Marvel in the title. DC's comics featuring the original Captain and his kinfolk use Shazam as the identifying trademark in their titles. This results in much confusion for newer readers, who don't understand why the smiling superhero in the red long johns goes by the handle Captain Marvel when the cover of the comic says Shazam.

That's corporate America for you, kiddies.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

By the time I get to Phoenix

My chorus, Voices in Harmony — northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, as it says on all the merchandise — is heading off to Phoenix this weekend for our District contest. We're debuting a new ballad ("Diane," popularized in 1964 by the Irish trio The Bachelors) in our contest set, so it'll be a fun trip.

I've never been to Phoenix before. My previous excursions into the Grand Canyon State have been limited to the Interstate 40 corridor, which we used to call Route 66 back in the day. Not being a fan of extremely warm weather, I am less than encouraged to know that the original Navajo name of the city now called Phoenix was Hoozdo, which translates to "The Place Is Hot." I'm told that it's a dry heat, though I find that small comfort. Supposedly, it's a trifle more temperate by this time of year. I can only hope.

Fret not, true believers: I will post this week's Comic Art Friday before I venture off.

And, if you're a denizen of the Arizona capital — or simply familiar with the place — I'm open to recommendations for good, inexpensive restaurants in downtown Phoenix.

If I run into Glen Campbell, I'll say hello for you.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

And like that... he's gone

Tonight, Barry Bonds played his final home game — and, in all probability, his final game, period — as a San Francisco Giant.

After 15 seasons, I will miss the big lug.

As a Giant, Bonds won five Most Valuable Player awards (he brought two with him when he came over from Pittsburgh), and one could effectively — and, in my never-humble opinion, accurately — argue that he should have won at least two more. For most of his tenure in San Francisco, Bonds was the most dominant, most imposing, most statistically singular baseball player of his generation — perhaps of any generation. This season, he chased down and captured the most legendary record in professional sports, in that handful of games when he wasn't looking like a 43-year-old bodybuilder with gimpy knees.

I've been watching baseball with avid fascination for nearly 40 years. I never saw another player like Bonds.

Did he inflate his statistics — and his uniform — with anabolic steroids and human growth hormone? I don't know. Maybe. Probably. There's no concrete evidence that he ever failed a drug test, but yeah, if I had to guess, I'd vote for the juice. (But not The Juice. That's a whole other story.) How much did it help, if he did? Hard to say. The Bonds who joined the Giants in 1993 was already the best ballplayer I'd ever seen, and even his harshest critics grudgingly acknowledge that he was probably pharmaceutical-free then, and for at least another five or six season thereafter. How much better could he have become, really?

I guess you'd have to ask Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, and Ken Caminiti for starters. Except Caminiti's dead. I suspect you should ask Roger Clemens, Pudge Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Albert Pujols, too. Not that there's any conclusive evidence there, either. We're just shooting the hypothetical breeze here, right?

You see, that's the reason why an inveterate baseball purist such as myself just sighs and shrugs when the discussion of Bonds, performance-enhancing drugs, and the non-existent asterisk arises. There's as much documented empirical evidence against several dozen other stars, near-stars, and wannabe-stars as there is against Bonds, and no one breathes a word about striking any of their accomplishments from the Baseball Abstract.

We all know why that is. Barry Bonds has all the personal charm of a Gila monster, at least when dealing with members of the fourth estate. Nice guys may finish last, but at least they get the benefit of the doubt. Everyone wants to take down the dude who acts like the wrong end of a horse.

I'm not Barry's apologist. He doesn't appear to want or need one — unless it's his old pal Greg Anderson — and I wouldn't accept the job if offered. But the bottom line is that if (and I believe we still have to say if, Game of Shadows notwithstanding) he used the juice, he wasn't alone. That doesn't excuse it if he did, but it means that in order to serve justice, we'd have to hunt down every Tom, Dick, and Jose who likewise did the stuff, and erase every accomplishment that every one of them ever did. That's assuming that we could prove anything against anyone at this late juncture. And that we could catch everyone who ought to get caught.

Yeah. Good luck with that.

While you're busy with the snipe hunt, I'll be over here remembering 762.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

He goes without saying

What's Up With That? #52: Here's the story of two lovely ladies

One-time teen heartthrob Maureen McCormick (I was always a Susan Dey man, but that's just how I rolled in the '70s) reportedly reveals in her upcoming autobiography that she and her Brady Bunch costar Eve Plumb shared Sapphic bliss back in the day.

The National Enquirer — and you know that if it's in the Enquirer, you can take it to the bank — quotes an unnamed source inside the publishing industry as saying that McCormick's expose, entitled Here's the Story, will blow the lid off the former Marcia Brady's struggles with drug abuse, clinical depression, and eating disorders. She also drops a dime on her girl-crush on Plumb, who played middle Brady daughter Jan:
While Maureen is not a lesbian, she reveals there were some sexual hijinks going on behind the scenes.
Sort of lends a new meaning to Jan's trademark cry, "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!" doesn't it?

Given what we already know about the carnal goings-on behind The Brady Bunch's innocent facade — eldest Brady son Barry Williams dated both his TV sister McCormick and his on-screen stepmother Florence Henderson; Brady dad Robert Reed lived a closeted existence gayer than any of his fictional wife's Day-Glo frocks — I suppose the news that Marcia and Jan practiced the sisterly affection that dared not speak its name should come as no great shock.

I just pray that word never comes to light about the torrid backstage tryst between Alice the housekeeper and little Cousin Oliver.

My childhood nostalgia can only withstand so much.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Marvel Comics: My Top Ten

Previously on Comic Art Friday, I presented my ten all-time favorite DC Comics characters, in response to a poll conducted by Brian Cronin at Comics Should Be Good! This week, I'm back with the other half of my ballot, this time featuring characters from the Marvel Comics pantheon.

Of the two lists, my Marvel Top Ten was easier to compile. When I started this project, I quickly jotted down my ten Marvel characters, right off the top of my head. This list, however, proved harder to rank in order of preference. As a young comics reader, I was a much more fervent fan of Marvel than I was of DC, so I've had a closer emotional relationship with most of my Marvel favorites. (Ironically, my current reading list contains almost equal quantities of comics from both major publishers.)

Even though I cogitated over the Marvel list for a couple of weeks, not a single new name worked its way in, although characters moved up and down quite a bit during the placement process. The choice between the first and second slots, in particular, required some serious internal argument. I'm still wrestling with myself over those two.

But here's the ballot I submitted: Uncle Swan's Ten Favorite Marvel Comics Characters.

10. The Prowler. Easily the most obscure selection on either list, but I absolutely love Hobie Brown. The Prowler could be Marvel's Batman, if someone would just give him a chance. And, although he quickly evolved into a heroic figure, the Prowler was the first African-American villain I recall seeing in a comic book. My fondness for the character is borne out by the fact that the only cover recreation in my collection is a redo of the cover to Amazing Spider-Man #78, the issue in which the Prowler first appeared. It's drawn by Jim Mooney, who inked the original cover art over John Romita Sr.'s pencils.

9. Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. Wanda would have placed higher, were it not for this lingering nasty taste in my mouth from Marvel's House of M crossover event of two years ago, in which she was portrayed as an insane villain. Wanda's another character with tremendous untapped potential — as House of M demonstrated, she's one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe. Besides which (besides witch?), she was my first Marvel superheroine crush, in those thrilling days of puberty. (Sigh.)

8. Iron Fist. Being the avid martial arts film fanatic I was back in the day, I always thought Danny Rand was a terrific character concept. During his years as half the Power Man/Iron Fist team, he balanced the more stereotypical aspects of Luke Cage, making Cage a richer, more rounded character by association. The Immortal Iron Fist, the current series written by Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker and drawn by David Aja, is astonishingly good.

7. The Thing. Aunt Petunia's favorite nephew, Benjamin J. Grimm was Marvel's first great personality. He's really the character who made the Fantastic Four a hit, because — to be brutally frank — the other three members of Marvel's "first family" are each annoying in his or her own way. Benjy's ongoing struggle to retain the humanity within his hideous exterior — with great power comes great personal tragedy — may be the most human story comics have ever told.

6. The Valkyrie. What can I say? I dig strong women and sharp objects. Val gets this high on the list in part because she's also representing for my favorite super-team of the '70s, the Defenders (since, according to the rules of the poll, I can't put teams on the list), of which she was a key member. She's also standing in for that other she-devil with a sword, Red Sonja, who's no longer a Marvel property (her current adventures are published by Dynamite Entertainment).

5. Captain America. When I was a kid, Cap was second only to Spider-Man in my admiration. I'm sorry for the publicity stunt his recent "death" engendered. In today's dark, conflicted world, we need Captain America more than ever. I know that Marvel will resurrect him eventually. I just hope Cap returns with his dignity and decency intact.

4. Storm. When she debuted as part of the "all-new, all-different" X-Men in the early '70s, Ororo Munroe converted me from a casual X-fan (I always found the original quintet dull and tediously ordinary) to an avid reader of the new team's early adventures. Although she's had two very good -- and very different -- miniseries in recent years, and made headlines for her marriage to the Black Panther last summer, I don't believe Storm's full potential as a character has yet been mined.

3. Ms. Marvel. Marvel's first stand-alone superheroine. Marvelites didn't have a Wonder Woman until Carol Danvers, previously a non-super supporting character, got powered up. Now, can we please get her original costume back? The black (or is it blue?) swimsuit with the lightning slash (I think that's what it's supposed to be) is lame, lame, lame.

2. The Black Panther. This was a tough call. Over the years, T'Challa has essentially moved into #1A status for me. I treasure this character immensely for everything he represents: the first black superhero; one of comics' first non-stereotypical persons of color; one of the most brilliant (maybe third, after Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom) and talented men in the Marvel Universe. Not to mention the fact that he's just plain wicked awesome.

1. Spider-Man. You've gotta dance with the one who brought you to the party, and it was Spider-Man who made me a fan of comics. He was the first costumed do-gooder I fell in love with — in a platonic, hero-worshiping sort of way. Even now, if I could only read one comic book per month, it would still be The Amazing Spider-Man. (Which is why Marvel's publishing it three times a month now.) I don't always like The Powers That Be at Marvel have dragged Spidey through over the years — the Clone Saga, anyone? — but after 40 years together, he's still The Hero Who Could Be Me.

As for the near misses, Number 11 would have been Thundra. The Falcon, Kitty Pryde, and Luke Cage were the other close calls.

There was a time when Iron Man would have been near the top of this list. I so despise everything that's been done to demonize Tony Stark in the past couple of years, however, that I've lost all good feeling (including nostalgia) toward the character. (That trailer for the upcoming Iron Man movie starring Robert Downey Jr. looks awfully sweet, though.)

The same is true of Daredevil. Frank Miller ruined him for me forever by ripping him from his roots as a more mature Spider-Man and making him nasty, ugly, and mean-spirited. Sort of like what Miller did to Batman in the '80s, and will probably do to The Spirit in the film version he's helming.

Anyway, those are my picks, and I'm sticking to 'em.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sure it's tall, but it's no Burj Dubai

A 1,200-foot skyscraper, in the middle of the most geologically unstable major city in the United States.

What could possibly go wrong?

Sure is pretty, though.

You're looking at the final design for the new San Francisco Transbay Transit Center complex, unanimously chosen today by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority over two equally impressive alternatives.

The winning proposal, created by the talented architects at Pelli Clarke Pelli in conjunction with the Hines development firm, features this sleek, dramatic tower that will overlook San Francisco Bay. If built to its suggested height of 1,200 feet, the Transbay structure will dwarf everything else in downtown San Francisco by a long shot, including the world-famous Transamerica Pyramid, currently The City's tallest building at 853 feet.

Your acrophobic Uncle Swan will content himself with viewing the marvel from ground level.

Meanwhile, across the pond in the United Arab Emirates, the still-under-construction Burj Dubai now exceeds the 1,800-foot mark. Despite its already astounding height, it's only two-thirds complete.

Although Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the architectural firm that designed Burj Dubai, remains tight-lipped about the structure's final dimensions, most experts guess that the Burj will top out at around 2,700 feet. If those estimates prove accurate, Burj Dubai will be the tallest object ever built by humankind, breaking the previous record (held by a radio tower in Warsaw, Poland, which collapsed in 1991 — not exactly a positive omen) by a good 600 feet. It's already the tallest self-supported structure on the planet, as of about a week ago.

Good luck getting me up in that.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

There be pirates here, matey!

Avast there, ye lubbers!

Today be September 19, and ye be knowin' what that means...

Talk Like a Pirate Day, it be!

All ye scurvy scalawags and wayfarin' wenches best keep yer powder dry and yer cutlasses swingin', if ye know what's best fer ye! Don't give ol' Cap'n Swan an excuse to make ye walk the plank!

Consider yer timbers shivered!


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Monday, September 17, 2007

There's no "I" in Emmys

The Emmy Awards are, generally speaking, the least interesting — and least entertaining — of the major awards shows. I never expect much from the Emmy telecast, and it rarely disappoints.

But, hokey smoke, Bullwinkle — last night's Emmys were a snoozefest and a half. That may well have been the most interminably boring awards show I have witnessed in my four decades of TV viewing. By the third hour, I had inserted broken toothpicks under my eyelids to prop them open.

Everything about the show reeked to high heaven. As host, Ryan Seacrest couldn't have been more insipid. My opinion of Ellen Degeneres's comedic talent is well known — she's the least funny big-name comic alive, next to Jerry Seinfeld — but I'd have gladly swapped Ellen for Ry-Guy in a New York minute. Heck, I'd have sooner seen Paula Abdul babble drunkenly between awards than Seacruise attempting to be glib, and failing.

Whose ridiculous idea was the theater-in-the-round presentation setup? Every time the presenters or awardees stepped to the microphone, they had their backs to most of the audience. Not only did this look awkward for those seated in the venue, but it also completely flummoxed the people on stage, who had no idea where to focus. For his part, Seacrest wandered about like little boy lost, flop sweat beading on his brow every time the camera zoomed in on him.

Even the fashions suffered a nosedive this year. In three-plus hours, I took notice of what exactly one of the attending celebs was wearing — Ali Larter of Heroes, who could appear presentable in a burlap sack and wooden clogs, but was stylishly turned out in a sleek, strapless red gown. That's all I got. Oh, and Terry O'Quinn's wife looked nice, too. You know it's bad when you're paying more attention to family members in the crowd than to the honorees.

Of course, I couldn't have cared less about any of the shows or actors that won. The Sopranos? Watched it once, years ago, wasn't impressed. 30 Rock? I'm not a sitcom guy. James Spader does an excellent job on Boston Legal, but is he really a better actor week in, week out, than, say, Kiefer Sutherland? I dunno. And Sally Field — let's call a moratorium on awards for the Flying Nun until she figures out how not to botch the acceptance speech.

The best thing about the Emmys this year that the Television Academy won't inflict this travesty on us again for another twelve months. I'll raise a cream soda to that.

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Brett Somers is so dead you couldn't revive her with a [blank]

Game show fans and TV nostalgia addicts everywhere are mourning the passing of longtime Match Game panelist Brett Somers, who died on Saturday at the age of 83.

The sassy Somers's death closely follows that of her frequent foil, Charles Nelson Reilly, who joined previously expired Match Game host Gene Rayburn in the hereafter last May.

You can always learn something by reading celebrity obituaries. For example, I knew that Somers was married to future The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E. star Jack Klugman in 1953, and that they went their separate ways after 20-odd years of wedded bliss (or something) in the early '70s. What I didn't know until today was that, despite their parting before disco was in fashion, Klugman and the tart-tongued comedienne were never legally divorced.

A third of a century is a long time to stay married to someone you don't plan on living with ever again.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

DC Comics: My Top Ten

As mentioned in this space three weeks ago, Brian Cronin over at Comics Should Be Good! (and yes, they should be, doggonit!) conducted a reader poll to find out who are fans' all-time favorite DC and Marvel Comics characters (not superheroes, necessarily — supporting cast count also). Participants submitted lists of their top 10 faves from each publisher's roster, ranked in order of preference. Beginning on Wednesday, Brian began counting down the top 50 characters in each poll.

Thinking — perhaps foolishly — that regular perusers of Comic Art Friday would be interested in knowing how I voted, I'll give you a sneak peek at my ballot. We'll start with my DC Top Ten this week, and come back with my Marvel list next Friday. Where I can, I'll include representations from my art collection.

So, in reverse order, here are Uncle Swan's Ten Favorite DC Comics Characters:

10. The Metal Men. The rules for Brian's poll specifically excluded groups as a single entry, with only a few exceptions permitted. The Metal Men were one of those exceptions, and thus landed a spot on my list. I can still remember the first Metal Men comic I ever purchased, at Snider's IGA Grocery in Poplar Bluff, Missouri way back when. Since I don't have any Metal Men commissions in my collection, here's the cover that first made me a fan of Dr. Will Magnus's motley crew of squabbling robots.

9. Mister Terrific II (Michael Holt). Mr. T. is a relatively new character that I've really grown to enjoy. He's Batman, only without all the dark psychosis and sexual innuendo. If I were the third-smartest man on Earth and as buff as all get-out, Mister Terrific is the hero I'd be.

8. Saturn Girl. Since I couldn't vote for the Silver Age Legion of Super-Heroes collectively, I chose my favorite original Legionnaire to stand in for the whole group. With their silly names and often sillier superpowers (Bouncing Boy? Matter-Eater Lad?), the 1960s Adventure Comics Legion represented all that was charming and fun about comics. Even when Lightning Lad died. (Or so we thought.)

7. Booster Gold. Self-possessed, semi-serious, and slyly antiheroic, Booster was my favorite "new" (as in, created since I was a kid) DC superhero, until he was bumped from that position quite recently. (See Number Five, below.) I'm glad Booster's back in his own monthly series now, with his creator Dan Jurgens writing his adventures.

6. Vixen. I *heart* Mari McCabe, and have since her Suicide Squad days. DC's first black superheroine, her true potential as a character remains untapped, although I'm thrilled to see her given newfound prominence on the current Justice League of America roster. DC needs to hire me to write a Vixen miniseries. And yes, I do have an awesome pitch for one.

5. Blue Beetle III (Jaime Reyes). The most intriguing new character to debut in mainstream comics so far this millennium is a Latino teen from El Paso who inherits incredible powers granted by a mysterious alien scarab. Blue Beetle, written by John Rogers and illustrated at the present moment by newcomer Rafael Albuquerque (after enjoyable stints by co-creator Cully Hamner and new Metal Men writer-artist Duncan Rouleau), is one of the best comic books almost no one is reading. (I don't have a Blue Beetle commission yet, so here's some concept art by Cully.)

4. Mary Marvel. Allow me to specify the pre-Countdown Mary Marvel, as opposed to the travesty now appearing in that DC series. Man, I hate what head writer Paul Dini and company are doing to my girl Mary. She's supposed to be the paragon of innocence and virtue, not a borderline wacko sexpot. But how I loved the way Jeff Smith handled her in his recent miniseries, Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil.

3. Green Arrow. This was the character who at last convinced this diehard Marvelite that DC could actually tell real, substantive stories, back in the Denny O'Neil-Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow days, through the era in which his adventures were chronicled by writer-artist Mike Grell. The recent Green Arrow: Year One miniseries by writer Andy Diggle and the artist known as Jock was awfully tasty, too.

2. Supergirl. I was never a Superman fan, but I always grokked Kara Zor-El. Yes, she had all of the Kryptonian powers that made Superman seem impossibly boring to me, but her stories back in the day were more about her as a character, and less about the fact that she could do practically anything.

1. Wonder Woman. Big surprise, right? If you've learned nothing else by reading Comic Art Friday every week — you have, haven't you? — you've learned that your Uncle Swan loves him some Princess Diana. The first great superheroine in comics, and still the greatest.

Who narrowly missed my DC Top Ten? Number 11 on my list would have been Jack Kirby's Mister Miracle. Other near misses: The Silver/Bronze Age Flash (Barry Allen); Adam Strange; Black Lightning.

Drop around next week, you'll discover who made the cut on my Marvel hot-list.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Farley's last travel

I was deeply saddened — though not surprised — to read this morning about the death of longtime San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank, creator of the comic strips Farley and Elderberries.

Frank had been seriously ill for several months (the Chronicle published reruns of his strips in the interim), and only a few days ago issued a public announcement of his retirement from cartooning. It was the kind of announcement that you just knew would soon be followed by an obituary.

According to the newspaper, Frank was 64, and died from the effects of a brain tumor.

Farley was always one of the best reasons to read the Chronicle, especially since the passing of veteran columnist Herb Caen. The only strictly local comic strip in the country, Farley offered a daily dose of Bay Area flavor — often political, but even more often, merely whimsical — in Frank's inimitable, warmly humorous style.

When it debuted in the mid-'70s, Frank's strip was entitled Travels With Farley, and featured its mustachioed protagonist (a self-caricature of the artist) journeying the American countryside, often employed as a park ranger. A decade later, Frank changed the focus of the strip to San Francisco and its environs, and Farley continued to grace the Chronicle's pages daily (under its truncated title, and with its lead character now working as a newspaper reporter) for another 22 years.

Although Farley wasn't specifically a political cartoon, Frank enjoyed using the strip to tweak the foibles of local politicians. One of his favorite targets was former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, as seen in this strip from August 2003 (click the image to see the strip full size):

A dedicated student of regional lore, Frank served as a local historian for his home town of Sausalito as well as western Marin County for many years. He was active in environmental causes, and often donated his original cartoons to conservationist charities, such as the Marine Mammal Center.

Phil Frank is survived by his wife, two adult children, and the legion of characters he made an indelible part of Bay Area culture. I, along with his many other fans, will miss him — and Farley — greatly.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

You wear my kufi, I'll wear your kippah

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins today at sunset.

Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, begins at precisely the same time.

Wouldn't it be awesome if all of our Jewish and Muslim friends got together this evening for dinner (kosher/halal, of course), followed by a big ol' group hug?

Well, it would.

And while my Muslim and Jewish friends are dispensing hugs, perhaps they could all give one to this guy. I think he needs a hug.

Britney could probably use one, too.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

No surprises

It really should come as no surprise that, six years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, we still haven't managed to capture Osama bin Laden.

After all, no one's found Jimmy Hoffa in 32 years, and Hoffa is presumably (a) somewhere on the North American continent, and (b) not actively eluding detection. Heck, they can't even find Steve Fossett, whom I presume would want to be found.

It's more surprising that 3,800 of America's servicemen and servicewomen have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, even though we're reasonably certain that Osama isn't hiding there.

Even more surprising is the fact that, six years later, most Americans still believe that the 9-11 attacks were an assault on our freedom. We have yet to figure out that most Islamic extremists couldn't care less about your freedom or mine. They don't care that we eat at McDonald's, or drive SUVs, or wear blue jeans and belly shirts, or vacation at Disneyland. They care about their own economics, and our government's foreign policy, and the inextricable relationship between the two. Everything else is window dressing.

Until the people running the show in Washington figure that out — or we replace them with people who already have — all you and I can do is wait for the inevitable next shoe to drop.

Which makes the tragedies of September 11, 2001 all the more tragic.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

They tried to make me use a condom; I said, "No, no, no"

Easily the worst idea I've heard this month:

English pop star Amy Winehouse and her junkie husband are desperately trying to conceive a baby.

Call Parenting Magazine. I think I've found the cover girl for their Mother's Day issue next year.

In case your copy of Billboard got detoured in the mail, Winehouse (a namephreak of the first order — RIP, Herb Caen) is the drugged-out, booze-addled Goth songstress best known in this country for her chart-topping hit "Rehab," the lyrics of which begin:
They tried to make me go to rehab
I said, "No, no, no."
The British tabloid News of the World last week published photos of Winehouse and her partner in addiction, hubby Blake Fielder-Civil, lounging on a beach in the Caribbean sporting fresh heroin needle tracks, as well as bruises from a recent, much-publicized domestic brawl, prior to which Amy was admittedly "cutting herself and about to do drugs with a call girl."

Aren't there enough children being born into corrosive home environments without these two losers contributing to the epidemic? I'm not in favor of involuntary sterilization, generally speaking, but Amy and Blake make a pretty fair argument for the practice.

A friend of the couple — presumably one who was sober and straight at the time of the interview — told the tabloid, "[Amy] really wants a baby and thinks it will help get her life back on track."

That must be a typo. I'm sure she said "on crack."

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

A final wrinkle in time

I noted with a sharp twinge of nostalgia the passing on Thursday of novelist Madeleine L'Engle, whose Newbery Award-winning classic A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books in my lost-distant youth.

A Wrinkle in Time is far more than a mere children's tale, or a run-of-the-mill science fiction fantasy. It's a provocative musing on the nature of human existence in the universe, and on the power of love, and on the eternal struggle between good and evil — the latter represented in the book by the horrific Black Thing, personified by the disembodied brain known simply as IT.

I've never forgotten the impact that the strange adventures of Meg Murry and her psychically gifted little brother, Charles Wallace, had on me when I first read the book at age ten. I've also never forgotten L'Engle's detailed explanation of the word tesseract, which is, as anyone who's read the story knows, is "a wrinkle in time."

As I grew into adolescence, I read several of Ms. L'Engle's subsequent works, but never found in them the emotional resonance of A Wrinkle in Time. It's one of those effects that perhaps can only happen in that initial moment when one encounters bold new ideas. I encountered similar disappointment a few years ago when I attempted to watch Disney's made-for-television adaptation of Wrinkle, which served only to prove the point that some books can't be translated to film, no matter how hard one tries — and that sometimes not trying is better.

Ironically, I found myself leafing through a copy of A Wrinkle in Time the last time I was in Costco, perhaps a week or so ago. I wondered at the time whether the author was still living. The answer was Yes then, but No now.

I believe it was Mrs. Whatsit, or perhaps Mrs. Which, who taught me that.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

"O zephyr winds which blow on high..."

For the past week, I've been as giddy as a puppy turned loose in the Milk-Bone factory.

Why? Friend reader, I'm telling you why: The Secrets of Isis: The Complete Series landed on my doorstep via eBay, by way of UPS. I've enjoyed a fun-fulled half-hour respite each day, screening an episode of this fondly recalled Saturday morning series from those wild and crazy 1970s.

And you know what? It's all been a stone gas, honey.

I'm pleasantly surprised at how well the show holds up. I had feared that after three decades, Isis would be unwatchable. It's terribly dated, sure, both in its production values (which, let's face it, were bargain-basement cheesy even in the mid-'70s) and in its cultural approach (there's a lot of "battle of the sexes" material in the scripts that can only be described as embarrassing today), but the stories are engaging and fun, and what the performers lack in acting ability, they make up threefold in enthusiasm.

Plus, the folks at BCI did a bang-up job of restoring the prints, so that these 30-year-old episodes look as crisp and clean as they did when first aired. The cast and crew interviews are also nicely done. It's unfortunate that JoAnna Cameron declined to participate (as she also declined an interview for the excellent Isis retrospective that appeared in the most recent Back Issue magazine), but there are some nice reminiscences from the other key performers, producers, and writers. BCI also included several other enjoyable extras, including a commentary track, photo galleries, and scripts for all 22 Isis episodes.

Knowing that this DVD package was nearing release, I commissioned a couple of new additions to my Isis art gallery. First up is this lovely panel featuring Isis in flight, drawn by animator and illustrator Dan Veesenmeyer.

I love the lightness and movement in Dan's figure drawing here. I also like the fact that he dispensed with the clunky boots Isis wore in both the TV series and its DC Comics counterpart, and provided her with more character-appropriate footwear. (I'm relatively certain that high heels had not yet reached the height of fashion in ancient Egypt.)

Next comes this traditionally styled portrait by one of my favorite pinup artists, Mitch Foust.

I own several of Mitch's artworks, but this was the first I commissioned from him directly. Mitch's eye for costuming detail is impeccable, and I always admire the gentle grace of his linework.

Our third peek at our elemental heroine comes to us courtesy of artist Jay Fife. Jay created this piece for his own amusement, and I have long admired it in his online art gallery at Comic Art Fans. When I discovered that it was for sale by his art representative, I couldn't resist bringing it home.

Jay's tonal pencils derive much more from portraiture than from comic book art, so this piece adds a distinctive fine art quality to my Isis tribute.

I'm told that JoAnna Cameron, who retired from acting not long after her Isis adventures, is now a successful executive in the hospitality industry in Hawaii. I wonder whether she ever catches a strong trade wind and utters her trademark command: "O zephyr winds which blow on high, lift me now so I can fly!"

I'd pay good money to see that.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

He'll be the Law & Order candidate

Is he an actor, or a politician? Is he a politician, or an actor? Is he a floor wax, or a dessert topping?

Apparently, Fred Thompson is all of the above.

The erstwhile Law & Order star (and former U.S. Senator from Tennessee) made it official last night on the Tonight Show, tossing his commodious hat into the 2008 Presidential ring. Comparisons were immediately made to the late Ronald Reagan, whom Thompson resembles most in that (a) Reagan also was a conservative Republican; and (b) Reagan couldn't really act, either.

Of course, I live in a state governed by Conan the Barbarian — heck, I even voted to reelect the guy — so I'm probably not in a position to cast aspersions. (Which is okay anyway, because the elbow on my aspersion-casting arm has been giving me fits of late.) Lest we forget, however, we in this fine country have a long and storied history of electing entertainers to public office. A few examples, some of which you may recall:
  • George Murphy, a Broadway veteran and musical film star who served a term as president of the Screen Actors Guild, was a Republican Senator from California in the 1960s. Tom Lehrer even waxed poetic in song about the guy: "At last we have a Senator who can really sing and dance."

  • Fred Grandy (assistant purser Burl "Gopher" Smith on The Love Boat) was a Republican Representative from Iowa for eight years, beginning in 1986. He narrowly missed being elected Governor of the Hawkeye State in 1994.

  • Ben Jones (goofy mechanic Cooter Davenport on The Dukes of Hazzard) was a Democratic Congressman from Georgia from 1988 to 1992. He was defeated in a Virginia Congressional race in 2002.

  • Jerry Springer, later a notorious tabloid TV host and Hasselhoff foil, was the Democratic mayor of Cincinnati in the late '70s.

  • Sonny Bono, the less talented half of the popular musical/comedy team Sonny and Cher, served two terms in Congress as a Republican representing Palm Springs (after serving as the city's mayor) before a high-speed encounter with a tree on a Lake Tahoe ski slope ended both his political career and his life.

  • Professional wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota in 1998. (Ten years later, I still snicker when I type that.)

  • Sheila Kuehl, who as Sheila James played nerdy Zelda Gilroy on the classic '50s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, has been a prominent California state legislator since 1994.

  • Former Green Bay Packers quarterback and TV actor Alan Autry (deputy Bubba Skinner on the long-running drama In the Heat of the Night) is currently the mayor of Fresno.

  • Film legend and Academy Award-winning director Clint Eastwood served a much-publicized term as mayor of Carmel, California, in the mid-'80s.
Just so we're clear, though: The day Britney Spears gets elected to public office, I'm buying a beach house in Greece.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Why do they call it Hump Day, when most people make love on the weekends?

So I'm rifling through the news on this sultry Wednesday morning, and here's what leaped off the screen at me...
  • Speaking of sultry, Raquel Welch is 67 today. You gentlemen of a certain age will understand what that means. You gentlemen younger than a certain age... well, you should have been there, is all I'm saying.

  • Again speaking of sultry, Halle Berry is expecting her first child at age 41. I might be going out on a limb here, but I'll bet that's going to be one good-looking baby.

  • Former FOX and MSNBC anchor Rita Cosby's new book, Blonde Ambition: The Untold Story Behind Anna Nicole Smith's Death, alleges that Anna Nicole's baby-daddy Larry Birkhead and her attorney-slash-boyfriend Howard K. Stern were gay lovers. Lawsuits will ensue. Bill Cosby — no relation to Rita — recommended that all parties involved enjoy a Jell-O Pudding Pop and have a Coke and a smile.

  • Speaking of allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the distinguished gentleman from Idaho has decided that he may want to keep his Senate seat after all. That thud you just heard was the Republican National Committee fainting en masse.

  • Speaking of way-past-allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the Wachowski brother formerly known as Larry (as in the Wachowski Brothers of The Matrix fame) is now also formerly a Wachowski brother. He's now officially a Wachowski sister named Lana. I believe Matrix star Keanu Reeves said it best: Whoa.

  • Good to hear that Paula Cole is touring and recording again (with Mandy Moore, no less), after nearly a decade away from the music business. She's a terrific talent, and I hope her comeback brings her much success. That said, if I never had to hear "I Don't Want to Wait" again in this lifetime, that would be just dandy with me. It's tough being the father of a Dawson's Creek fanatic.

  • Not so good to hear that Kelly Clarkson is attempting to jump-start her aborted tour, previously canceled due to overwhelming ennui on the part of ticket-buying America, by playing smaller halls. You are so over, Miss Thing. Maybe you and Justin can still hang out.

  • They still love him in France: Jerry Lewis took another stumble down the long, dark road toward oblivion during his annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, when he dropped the f-pejorative in a joke about a cameraman's gay family member on live TV. This is the same Jerry who, in a televised interview following the death of entertainment icon Merv Griffin, opined that Merv "deserved to die" from prostate cancer, because he didn't seek earlier and more aggressive treatment. Can you arrange to let him keep the change for his kids?

  • A friend gave the following report about Mary-Kate Olsen's recent adventures at a trendy New York nightclub: "Mary-Kate was wearing a see-through green dress. She was completely wasted, she was humping and grinding against a column with another girl. Then she was flailing all over the dance floor. Later, Mary-Kate made out with various questionable men while friends took pictures. She then fell over onto a table and proceeded to break every glass on the table before toppling over onto everyone sitting behind her." See what happens when you don't eat properly, kids? Your brain turns into Cream of Wheat.

  • This couldn't possibly be a worse casting decision: Nicolas Cage as Magnum, P.I.?

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

What's In My Pocket? #4: Chris Reeve Sebenza

Knife collectors have a term: "safe queen."

A safe queen is a knife that you never use or carry, in order to maintain it in pristine condition. Typically, a safe queen holds particular value to the collector — usually monetary value that would be diminished with usage. It's a knife, to explain the metaphor, that you keep in a safe and treat like a queen. It's an investment, not a tool.

From my perspective, the concept of safe queens is silly. A knife is a tool, and a tool only has value if it's used for its intended purpose. Safe queens are like CGC-graded comic books, slabbed and sealed in plastic, never to be opened. Just as a comic whose contents can't be viewed is redundant in my opinion, I think a knife that can't at least slice open the daily mail is redundant, too.

Not that point of view prevented me from keeping at least one safe queen in my collection for the longest time.

Meet my Sebenza. (I hear The Knack in my head every time I say that.)

Made by Boise, Idaho-based Chris Reeve Knives (no relation, so far as I'm aware, to the late, lamented Superman star), the Sebenza is considered by many blade aficionados to be the finest production folder available. Its sturdy bead-blasted titanium handle houses a razor-sharp blade made of S30V stainless steel, one of the most durable American knife steels on the market today. The Sebbie's rock-solid lockup, butter-smooth action, brilliantly functional design, and flawless fit and finish are often imitated, but rarely equaled. (I know this from experience, as I also own a couple of decent Sebenza knockoffs. Quality knives, and well-used, but not in the same league.)

Chris Reeve's exacting specifications and personalized approach — although built from standardized components, each Sebenza is assembled by hand, and comes complete with its own "birth certificate" listing the manufacture date and salient details — has earned the Sebbie its lofty reputation. (Mine, by sheer coincidence, was "born" on my wife's birthday, four years ago.) The quality comes at a price, as a new Sebenza will set you back anywhere from $300 to several times that amount, depending upon the options ordered. No wonder, then, that many Sebbies never see the light of day, their owners content to lock them up in secure quarters and only occasionally take them out for careful admiration.

I used to be one of those owners. For the longest time, I kept my Sebenza (there goes Doug Fieger again!) tucked away in its box at the back of a desk drawer. Once a week or so, I would risk exposing the knife to air and sunlight so that I could marvel at its mirror-finished blade and its handsome inlays of reddish-brown cocobolo wood. Then, ever so gingerly, I would return my prize to its refuge until I once again hankered to fondle its titanium scales.

Then, one day, I realized how stupid that was.

It's a knife, for crying out loud, I told myself. Use the doggone thing.

My hands trembled when I ran my Sebenza's blade under the flap of its first envelope. I held back a tear the first time I clipped it into the rear pocket of my dress slacks. (You didn't really think I'd stick it in my crusty old jeans for its maiden voyage, did you?) I shuddered in horror as I tenderly wiped the first crumbs of Priority Mail cardboard from its rapier edge.

I got over it.

I make it a point to carry — and yes, use — my Sebenza often now. It's a regular participant in my everyday pocket rotation, and it's always the knife of choice when I'm wearing my Sunday-go-to-meeting duds. I keep it away from the heavier-duty cutting jobs, but it opens newly arriving packages like nobody's business.

Every once in a great while, I still stroke it lovingly and call it "my Precious."

Just kidding.

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