Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I'm shakin', baby

Hey, that was some earthquake last night. Of course, they'd schedule a quake epicentered in San Jose on the one night of the week when I happen to be in that fair city.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony, was about a half-hour into rehearsal (my carpool buddy and I arrived late, because traffic on the Nimitz Freeway sucked) when the temblor struck. We'd just finished breakout sessions for the four voice parts, and were just returning to the risers when we heard a low boom that sounded like nearby thunder. Immediately, the entire building started vibrating. The risers swayed crazily beneath my feet — I probably looked as though I were surfing as I attempted to hold my balance.

Our esteemed director, a relative newcomer to the Bay Area, was standing beneath a chandelier as the quake rocked the house. Fortunately, one of our members had the presence of mind to grasp him gently by the shoulders and guide him out of potential danger.

No harm befell either our singers or our rehearsal venue. Being the consummate musical professionals that we are, we continued on with the evening as though nothing had happened.

This magnitude-5.6 shock was easily the strongest seismic action I've felt since the infamous Loma Prieta quake that interrupted the World Series between the Giants and A's. A little exciting, a little fun even, but only as long as no one gets hurt.

Just serves as a reminder that in our part of the world, the terra isn't always as firma as it might appear.

Speaking of Voices in Harmony...

If you're in or near the Bay Area, the best tickets to our two spectacular holiday concerts are already flying out the door. Pop over to our official Web site and purchase your ducats while the getting is still good.

We'll be headlining at the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center on Sunday, December 2, with our special guests, the UC Berkeley Men's Chorale; and at San Jose's splendiferous California Theater on Sunday, December 16, with our special guests, the Menlo Brass Quintet. (We're not planning any earthquakes, honest.)

Ain't no party like a VIH party, so bring your family and friends to see and hear northern California's world-class men's a cappella chorus (currently ranked third Internationally by the Barbershop Harmony Society).

We now return you to our post-earthquake coverage, already in progress.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A fresh coat of paint

Hey, everybody, check out that snazzy new header!

The Mysterious Cloaked Figure — one of our blogosphere buddies lo, these many moons — recently applied his considerable talents in graphic design to the SSTOL brand and came up with this classy new banner. Thanks from the bottom of Uncle Swan's downy little heart, MCF!

If you're not already reading MCF's Nexus of Improbability, you should be. Get your britches on over there and show the MCF some love, will you, please?

Which reminds me...

I'm updating my blogroll over the next couple of weeks, deleting some of the links that have given up the ghost (or at least have stopped updating regularly) and adding some new folks whose work I'm currently enjoying. If you know of a blog I ought to check out — yours, or someone else's — drop me a note and clue me in about it.

I'm interested in all sorts of subject matter, as long as the content is cogent, lively, and well-written. Pop culture snark is SSTOL's primary stock in trade, but I dig other bloggy flavors also. Hit me with your best linkage!

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Monday, October 29, 2007

What's Up With That? #55: Moon over my county

As if things weren't weird enough around these parts, a local youth league soccer coach mooned his team's opponents over the weekend.

Perhaps the man's a plumber in everyday life.

Two teams of 14- and 15-year-old girls — one from Petaluma, to the south of us, and one from Windsor, the town to our north, where KJ works — played a rather acrimonious game in Saturday's Windsor Cup soccer tourney. After the game concluded, the adult male coach of the Petaluma team... how about if I let Sgt. Steve Brown of the Windsor P.D. tell the tale?
After the game [the coach] goes to the center of the field and drops his pants and hangs a B.A. to the Windsor team and crowd.
Nothing like showing the young ladies an example of class, character, and sportsmanship, coach. That, and your pair of pasty glutes.

(I'm struggling to recall the last time I saw the phrase "hangs a B.A." in the local newspaper. Or anywhere else, for that matter. So far, I'm coming up empty.)

Mooning (or "hanging a B.A.," if you prefer) is a time-honored method of expressing contempt for one's enemies. Way back in 1346, during the Battle of Crécy in northern France, a battalion of soldiers from Normandy bared their buttocks to the onrushing English forces. Unfortunately for the Normans, the English archers found those rosy French rumps prime targets for their arrows.

Meanwhile back in the 21st century, the Petaluma soccer coach (whose name is not being reported, since he hasn't yet been arrested or charged with a crime) may take comfort in the knowledge that a circuit court judge in Montgomery County, Maryland recently determined that mooning is a Constitutionally protected form of free expression, even in the presence of minors. In his decision, Judge John W. Debelius III wrote: "If exposure of half of the buttock constituted indecent exposure, any woman wearing a thong at the beach at Ocean City would be guilty."

So, let the moon shine, America. Just watch out for those English longbows.

In related news, a representative from our city's Pee-Wee Baseball league called this morning to see whether I might be interested in sponsoring a team.

I didn't say this to the woman on the phone, but I'm not sure that anything involving children should be using the name "Pee-Wee." You might see coaches dropping trou every game in that league.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Wonder Woman Day, redux!

Two days from today — Sunday, October 28 — is the second annual Wonder Woman Day.

In case you missed jotting this auspicious occasion on your calendar, the last Sunday in October each year has been officially declared Wonder Woman Day by the cities of Portland, Oregon and Flemington, New Jersey. This event uses the celebration of everyone's favorite Amazon to focus awareness on, and to raise money for, domestic violence shelters in the two sponsor cities.

Artists from throughout the comics industry donate original Wonder Woman art, which is auctioned off to support these worthwhile community organizations. You can view this year's incredible array of offerings at the official Wonder Woman Day site.

One of the items up for bid is a terrific pinup featuring Wonder Woman alongside Superman, drawn by the phenomenal Al Rio. I was fortunate enough some time back to be able to purchase Al's preliminary drawing of the Princess of Themyscira for my own collection. Al's sketch is so tightly rendered that it's almost indistinguishable from his final version (sans the superfluous Man of Steel, and who cares about him anyway?).

This piece is currently awaiting embellishment by one of the comic industry's great inking talents, Bob Almond. When Bob's done doing that voodoo that he do so well, I'll display the finished version on a future Comic Art Friday.

Another one of my favorite artists, Michael Dooney, created this spectacular Wonder Woman pinup you see below. I was being completely sincere when I told Mike this might be one of the best Wonder Woman drawings, not just in my not-inconsiderable collection, but in all of existence. (Mike thinks it's not quite up to the level of Adam Hughes, who more or less set the standard for Wonder Woman art during his three-year run creating the covers of her comic book, but I still dig it anyway. I dig Adam's stuff, too.)

Dooney's style incorporates influences from several of the classic pinup artists, including Alberto Vargas, Gil Elvgren, and George Petty. Mike was very receptive to my costume suggestions on this particular commission assignment, all of which he executed beautifully. I've always been partial to Diana's original costume with its golden eagle bustier, and I love the star-spangled skirt and Grecian sandals Dooney added here, at my request.

So, remember: October is both National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Sunday, October 28 is Wonder Woman Day. If you're so inclined, pop over to the official site and check out all of the Wonder-ful art that's up for auction. You might even see something you'll want to bid on yourself. It's in service of a cause that Wonder Woman herself would most certainly approve.

After all, shouldn't every day be Wonder Woman Day?

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Unclear on the concept of "boys"

Here's the stupidest (yes, I know that "most stupid" is correct; sometimes, you've got to fight fire with fire) thing anyone not employed by the Bush administration has said this week, courtesy of Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys:
We were never a boy band. We always thought of ourselves as a white vocal harmony group... Maybe things started off a little boy band-ish but after a while you shed that.
Hey, Nick: "Boy band-ish"? The name of your group is Backstreet Boys, slick. If you look up "boy band" in the Oxford English Dictionary, there's a picture of you, AJ, Brian, Howie, and Kevin in all your Tiger Beat glory.

Saying the Backstreet Boys were never a boy band is a little like saying the Supremes were never a girl group, or the Village People were never gay icons.

Now, Nick, if you said, "We were never talented," or "We were the Pat Boone of the '90s," or "People confuse us with N*SYNC," that I might believe.

Otherwise, shut up, you boy band singer, you.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Twitter me this, Batman

I keep forgetting to mention this, but I now have a Twitter account.

For those of you who don't keep current with happenings on these here Internets, Twitter can best be described as a microblog. It allows the user to post short messages of 140 characters or less. The blurbs can either be accessed at the main Twitter site, or subscribed via text message, or appended to the sidebar of a standard blog, as I've done here.

Most people, apparently, use their Twitter accounts to keep their friends up to date on the minutiae of their lives: "Eating dinner. The creamed spinach is excellent." "Watching CSI. I miss Sara already." "Sitting on the toilet with my laptop." (Twitter actually encourages this sort of banal folderol by labeling its input box, "What are you doing?")

Instead, I intend to use my Twitter presence to record the frequent one-liners, bon mots, and random inane jottings that spring nonstop from my fevered imagination, but aren't substantial enough to warrant an entire post here on SSTOL. Some of you may find these bursts of brain-babble amusing, or evidence of mental illness, or both.

Look to the right of your screen, just below my profile and homepage links. The caption that says, "Swan's All A-Twitter"? There you go: the five most recent notations I've made. If you want to catch up on anything you've missed, click the link entitled, "Follow the Swan on Twitter."

Don't ever tell me that I don't strive to offer value around this joint.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What's Up With That? #54: Care to handle my wand, Mr. Potter?

Before we get started: The first one to crack a "headmaster" joke has to sit in the corner until this post is over.

My reaction to the big "Dumbledore was gay!" revelation by J.K. Rowling takes the form of an classic Chicago song (back when they were good, before Peter Cetera turned them into yawn-inducing elevator music for baby boomers):

Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?

Seriously — the sexual orientation of a fictional character in a series of fantasy novels? Who's getting worked up over this?

He doesn't exist, people. Simmer down.

I'm not even sure what Rowling's purpose was in outing the ancient wizard, who was played on film by Michael Gambon and the late Richard Harris. The Harry Potter series is done; Rowling has repeatedly declared that herself. She's not going to write any more Potter books. So it's not as though Dumbledore's practice of the Love That Dares Not Speak At Hogwarts is going to impact future events in the Potter storyline, because there aren't going to be any.

If Rowling wanted to make a statement, and include a gay character in her books, why didn't she, you know, include a gay character in her books? I'm not a Potterite myself, but I understand that old Albus's sexuality never raises its head — so to speak — in the stories themselves. If it wasn't important enough for Rowling to characterize Dumbledore as gay when she was actually writing the books, what possible difference could it make now? How does it add anything to what she's written if it isn't on the page?

This whole business reminds me of the final episode of Law & Order in which Serena Southerlyn, the assistant district attorney played by Elisabeth Röhm, appeared. In her exit scene, Serena asks her soon-to-be-former boss Arthur Branch (in the guise of future GOP Presidential contender Fred Dalton Thompson) if he's firing her because she's a lesbian. (Arthur says, "No, of course not," because no Republican would ever fire anyone because he or she was homosexual. Ahem.)

In the four seasons Serena had appeared on the show, there had been not one whit of implication that she was gay; if anything, the several mentions of her previous relationships with men would have suggested that she was straight. It was as though the writers, as they wrote Serena's last line of dialogue, suddenly decided, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if she were a lesbian?"

The French have an expression: esprit d'escalier, "the spirit of the staircase." The Germans have one like it: treppenwitz, "staircase wisdom." Both refer to that flash of genius we all experience when it's too late for it to matter; the brilliant riposte we only think to throw back at an opponent after we've already walking down the steps toward the door.

I suspect Rowling's notion about Dumbledore's preference for the fellows is, like that of the Law & Order scripters, a classic case of staircase wisdom.

Sorry, girlfriend, but Albus has already left the building.

If not the closet.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Licensed to thrill

Beware, California...

my daughter has joined the ranks of licensed drivers.

KM passed her road test on the first attempt, with no errors, earning an "Excellent!" on her score sheet from the DMV adjudicator.

You go, Supergirl!

Thank heaven that she doesn't have access to a Hot Rod Lincoln.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Kisses and love won't carry me 'til you marry me, Bill

We just got home from the supermarket a little while ago, and now "Wedding Bell Blues" is stuck in my head.

Thanks a ton, Muzak.

The awesome reality about this song, of course, is that Marilyn McCoo — who sang the lead vocal on the classic 5th Dimension hit — and Billy Davis, Jr. — the "Bill" of the plaintive line, "Come on and marry me, Bill!" — actually did get married in 1969, a few months after the song was released, and are still (allegedly happily) married 38 years later.

Ain't love grand?

Still doesn't help me get this doggoned song out of my head, though.

Although many people presume that McCoo and/or Davis wrote "Wedding Bell Blues," given how inextricably entwined with their professional and personal lives the song has become over the past four decades, it's actually the work of the tremendously talented Laura Nyro, also the creative genius behind such standards as "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Sweet Blindness," and "Save The Country," also recorded by the 5th Dimension; Three Dog Night's "Eli's Coming"; and the unforgettable "And When I Die," made famous by David Clayton Thomas and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

It's one of the great tragedies of modern music that Nyro, perhaps one of the most brilliant composer/lyricists of the pop era, remains largely unknown today, for two reasons: (1) most of her better-known songs are more closely associated with other artists who covered them, as is the case with "Wedding Bell Blues"; and (2) she disliked performing in public — and particularly on television — and thus was not seen and appreciated as a performer by all that many people. Despite this relative anonymity, Nyro is frequently cited as an influence by musicians as diverse as Todd Rundgren, Joni Mitchell, and Alice Cooper.

Laura Nyro died of ovarian cancer in 1997, at the age of 49.

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We didn't start the fire

I'm beaming positive energy to — and prayers for — the students, faculty, and staff at my alma mater, Pepperdine University.

The picturesque hillside campus had to be evacuated this morning due to wildfires raging through the Malibu Canyon area. The posh Malibu Colony beachfront community is also threatened by the blaze.

Sadly, the Castle Kashan, the multimillion-dollar themed residence modeled after castles in Scotland, has already been at least partially destroyed. The castle, which was completed just prior to my arrival in Malibu, has been a local landmark since the late 1970s.

Here's hoping that everyone at Pep and environs rides out the firestorm safely.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

The pact is: To avenge!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to comic art legend Marie Severin, one of the few women to make a lasting mark in the industry during comics' Silver Age. An acclaimed colorist for EC Comics in the 1950s, and later an illustrator, art director, and character designer for Marvel Comics, Marie was inducted into the Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame in 2001.

Unfortunately, Marie suffered a stroke recently, and is now recovering in a rehabilitative facility. I wish her a swift and successful return to health. She's one of the great ones.

I'm sure that, given the nature of obsessive fandom, there must be people (read: adult males in an arrested state of emotional adolescence) who are even bigger fans of the film Heavy Metal than I am. (I'll identify one for you at the conclusion of this post.)

However, so far as I'm aware, I'm the only comic art collector with an entire gallery of commissioned art featuring the movie's most memorable character — the mysterious, silent swordswoman known as Taarna the Tarakian.

Why Taarna? I can't answer that question definitively, any more than I can explain why I prefer vanilla to chocolate. Part of the reason is my admiration for Heavy Metal itself, which I believe is one of the great neglected classics of animated cinema, made all the more remarkable by the fact that the film was made on a modest budget under an unrealistically tight schedule. The list of talents whose work is represented in the movie reads like an international Who's Who of fantasy art legends: Jean "Moebius" Giraud, Richard Corben, Berni Wrightson, Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, Juan Gimenez, Angus McKie, Chris Achilleos, and Mike Ploog, just to name a few.

Another reason is Taarna herself. I'm a sucker for strong female characters (as regular Comic Art Friday readers will affirm), and Taarna is as strong — and as female — as they come. Plus, she's a terrific visual. Designed by Howard Chaykin, a comic book creator renowned for his striking depictions of women, Taarna has influenced the look of dozens of female characters in the quarter-century since she first appeared.

The Taarna artworks we're featuring today were both created by artists associated with other noteworthy female characters. Earlier this year, I was offered the opportunity to commission Mel Rubi, a veteran comic artist most familiar for his work on Dynamite Entertainment's Red Sonja series. Given Mel's intimate familiarity with sword-wielding woman warriors, I knew he'd deliver a fantastic Taarna... and he did.

Aside from the beauty and clarity of his linework here, I was especially delighted that Mel chose a unique pose for his drawing. It's eye-catching, it's dramatic, and most importantly, it's completely in character. According to Mel's art representative, Ruben Azcona at Comic Book Art Gallery, this was one of the first commission projects that Mel accepted. I hope he enjoyed it, because I have a feeling that he'll be asked to do many more.

Our second Taarna artwork roars forth from the pen of Matt Martin, who has drawn numerous covers for the Lady Death series published by Avatar Press. Like Mel Rubi, Matt has built his considerable reputation on his facility with dramatic female figures. He puts that skill to excellent use in this cover-quality illustration.

My favorite feature of Matt's Taarna is the powerful emotion with which he interprets the character. In her segment of Heavy Metal, Taarna remains stoic, never speaking and rarely revealing any inner feelings. Here, Matt strips away her implacable veneer and shows us Taarna's wrath-filled heart of vengeance. That curled lip, those flashing eyes... priceless.

If you're interested in a more detailed presentation of this quintessential heroine, check out superfan Adam W. Smith's incredible tribute site, Celebrating Taarna. Adam provides extensive background details about Taarna and her development, as well as his personal musings about what the character means to him.

Remember: October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To find a cure: This is the pact.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels

The raindrops should be hitting the roses at any moment now here in lovely Sonoma County (what the heck ever happened to our customary Native American summer?), so here are a few of my favorite things, at least for today:
  • Dead animal flesh cooked over charcoal. I grilled a tri-tip on the old Char-Broil tonight that was sublime — perfectly marinated and done to a turn. Too bad you weren't here to eat some. Then again, there wasn't enough for you anyway. And you weren't getting mine. Take that, PETA.

  • Former Yankees manager Joe Torre, for having the gumption to tell George Steinbrenner to stick his 33 percent pay cut and one-year lame-duckitude where the Times Square neon doesn't shine.

  • My new Dr. Scholl's everyday walking-around shoes. They're comfy.

  • The Highwaymen, the rollicking Wildstorm Comics miniseries cleverly written by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman and drawn with razor-edged gusto by Lee Garbett. Of course, because I love it, it didn't sell worth a tinker's dam, and the fifth issue of the cycle marks the last time we'll see engaging mercenaries Monroe and McQueen ("One drives; one shoots"). If Wildstorm publishes a trade collection (which I doubt they will, given the lackluster sales of the monthly), buy it.

  • Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill. The langostino "lobster" that earned the chain all that untoward publicity a while back is on the menu again for a limited time. Get 'em while they've got 'em.

  • My daughter KM, who's enjoying her first semester of college. She's also taking her driver's license test on Monday — wish her luck!

  • Christopher Walken, who demanded — and supervised the auditions for — a bare-butt double for his latest film, Five Dollars a Day. I have no idea who thought anyone wanted to see Walken's pasty, 64-year-old glutes writ large on the silver screen, but good on Crazy Chris for refusing to drop trou.

  • The matching "Phoenix" and "Arizona" pictorial mugs I brought back from my recent trip to the Valley of the Sun.

  • Costco. It's the only place in town at the moment where regular gasoline is still less than three bucks per gallon.

  • Guy Fieri, our culinary local boy made good. KM and I spotted him and his family walking north of his downtown Santa Rosa restaurant, Tex Wasabi's, one day last week. Nice to see that with all his Food Network fame, Guy still hasn't lost that hometown touch. (Or the board shorts and flip-flops.)

  • The daunting new charts my chorus is learning. Just today, I downloaded an eight-page holiday arrangement that I have to familiarize myself with between now and Tuesday, on top of two others we've received in the last couple of weeks. Fun, complex, challenging music to sing, but the memory stick in the musical corner of my brain is filling up fast. (Yes, I'll get over it.)

  • Good coffee. You can never get enough good coffee.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Kissin' cousins

And you thought YOU were having a bad day...

Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama just found out that he's related — albeit distantly — to Vice President Dick "Shotgun" Cheney.

The Veep's wife Lynne discovered the connection while reaching her family tree for her new autobiography. The Second Lady revealed the genealogical anomaly yesterday in an interview on MSNBC.

Although Mrs. Cheney said that her husband and Obama are eighth cousins, further investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times showed that Tricky Dick and Master O are actually ninth cousins, once removed. (If I were Obama, once would not be nearly enough removal.)

In response to the revelation, Obama's spokesperson quipped, "Every family has a black sheep."

Ain't it the truth?

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Happiness is a warm biography... or not

The hot news around these parts lately is the umbrage taken by the family of our beloved local icon, Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, at a new biography of the late artist.

Schulz's widow and children say that Schulz and Peanuts, written by David Michaelis following seven years of interviews and research (in which the Schulzes actively participated), paints Schulz in an unfairly unflattering light — as a morose, emotionally distant, morally conflicted individual whose comic strip held the failings and foibles of his personal life before a funhouse mirror.

Needless to say, the Peanuts fanatic in me can't wait to read the book, which hits stores tomorrow. The tightwad in me, however, will hold out for the paperback.

I would not be at all shocked if Michaelis's book reveals Schulz more accurately than the artist's survivors will allow. After all, that's what good biographies do.

I also would not be at all shocked if the Schulz family had a point about the book focusing somewhat more on the darker details of Schulz's life and persona than on the happier aspects. After all, that's what best-selling biographies do.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to add much of an expert perspective on the matter. Although I saw Schulz in person on several occasions — we used to frequent the same bookstore, ironically enough — the entire scope of our interaction consisted of my mustering the courage to say, "Hi, Mr. Schulz," one day as we were both browsing the stacks, and his smiling and saying, "Hi," in return. The next couple of times we passed one another in the store, we exchanged that nod of recognition that acknowledged our common memory that we had once spoken.

Schulz had no idea that I starred as Snoopy in my high school's production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown during my senior year. I, being me, was far too humble to mention it. (A member of our cast actually went so far as to invite Schulz to take in one of our performances. He politely declined, but wished us much success. Rumor had it that he and his wife Jean did, in fact, slip in unobtrusively one evening and observe part of the show from the back row.)

I suspect that the real Charles Schulz was like most of us — a complex individual with positive and negative attributes, and qualities that could be either negative or positive, depending on the context. I'm sure that he was as lovable as his family nostalgically recalls, with feet of clay that they would prefer remain unadvertised.

In short, I think Schulz was probably altogether human.

I would expect the man who unleashed Charlie Brown on the world to be nothing less. And nothing more.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Shoeless Jills

We're in the midst of the second torrential downpour of our surprisingly early rainy season on this Comic Art Friday. (The first, wouldn't you know, arrived on Tuesday night — just in time for the 95-mile drive home from chorus rehearsal. It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature... or Al Gore.)

It's not the sort of day on which you'd want to go running around outdoors in your bare feet. If you did, however, it would probably mean that you were one of the two superheroines featured in this Common Elements pinup by comic book artist Robb Phipps, best known for his work on the series Mantra and Maze Agency.

On the left, that's Mantis, a staple of Marvel Comics' Avengers during the 1970s. On the right, that's Gypsy (real name: Cindy Reynolds), who began her crimefighting career with the Justice League of America, and more recently served with the all-female superteam Birds of Prey. As your discerning eye has no doubt already perceived, the Common Element between these two heroines is their utter disdain of footwear.

From my armchair perspective, it would appear that dashing into the heat of superheroic battle with unshod tootsies would be the height of folly. All an enemy would need to disable a barefoot opponent would be a few shards of broken glass (think Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard movie), a fistful of thumbtacks (available for a less than a buck at any convenient discount retailer), or just a well-aimed boot heel. But for Mantis and Gypsy, the feeling of hot asphalt beneath their soles must be worth the tactical disadvantage.

Mantis was one of the features that made reading Avengers so much fun back in that halcyon Disco Age. For one thing, she possessed one of comicdom's most unique speech patterns, always referring to herself in the third person as "This One." She also had a complex and intriguing backstory — the half-German, half-Vietnamese daughter of a supervillain named Libra, Mantis (who never, so far as I can recall, had a real name) was raised by aliens from outer space, rigorously trained to excel in every form of martial arts, spent most of her pre-superheroine adulthood selling sexual favors on the streets of Hanoi (silly rabbit — comic books are for kids!), and had been designated as the Celestial Madonna, destined to give birth to the savior of the universe.

Besides all that, Mantis was cute, provocatively dressed, and kicked evildoer butt in her bare feet. How could you not love her?

Mantis's creator, writer Steve Englehart, was so enamored of her that he reinvented new versions of her at practically every comics company for whom he later worked. At DC Comics, Englehart's Mantis avatar went by the name Willow; at Eclipse and Image, she was known as Lorelei. This is probably just an urban legend, but I've heard tell that Englehart keeps a RealDoll dressed like Mantis in his bedroom closet. (Okay, I just made that up. But it wouldn't surprise me if it were true. The man's obsessed, I tell you.)

For her part, Gypsy — whom I liked mainly because she was a frequent comrade-in-arms to one of my favorite heroines, Vixen — later sold out on the barefoot ideal, exchanging her ragtag fortune-teller costume for an armored outfit complete with boots. (Say it ain't so, Cindy!) I believe she's since gone back to the sans-shoesy style. You can take the girl out of the barefoot, but you can't take the barefoot out of the girl.

Being proactive and thoughtful superheroines, both Mantis and Gypsy asked me to remind you once again that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Early detection is your best friend.

I'm going to go dabble my pedal digits in a rain puddle. And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

I'm coming out

I had no idea such a holiday existed until I saw it this morning on the Wikipedia home page, but today is National Coming Out Day. If you're gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, and the gaydar of everyone around you is hopelessly malfunctioning, today would be an opportune time to 'fess up.

In honor of this event, I would like to state here and now, publicly, and for the record, that I am a heterosexual.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I also had no idea, again until I saw it on Wikipedia, that today is General Pulaski Memorial Day. According to the notation, this observance honors the death of General Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish-born Revolutionary War hero killed during the Siege of Savannah on October 11, 1779. Apparently, General Pulaski Memorial Day is to Polish-Americans what St. Patrick's Day is to Irish-Americans, or Columbus Day to Italian-Americans, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to African-Americans.

In honor of this event, I would like to state here and now, publicly, and for the record, that I enjoy a good Polish sausage now and then.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eternal nausea of the spoiled mind

It's Wednesday already, and I haven't touched SSTOL since the work week began. High time, don't you think?

Let's take a tour of the past few days' pop culture madness. You know the drill: Uncle Swan rips, you read. Onward:
  • Pretty, maybe; sexy... meh: Esquire Magazine has pronounced Charlize Theron the Sexiest Woman Alive. She doesn't do much for me (skinny and blonde is a fatal combination in my aesthetic), but I'll agree with the divine Ms. T on one thing: Reindeer Games, in which Charlize costarred with Ben Affleck, is a bad, bad, bad movie. Just knowing that the great John Frankenheimer — whose preceding film, Ronin, is one of my all-time favorites — directed this low-rent piece of trash makes Uncle Swan cry.

  • As if Oprah didn't have enough money: Oxygen, the women's cable channel cofounded by the ubiquitous Ms. Winfrey (you know, the one not called Lifetime), is being purchased by NBC Universal for $925 million. Stedman, as usual, was unavailable for comment.

  • Hey there, people, I'm Bobby Brown: Whitney Houston's ex is recovering from what's being called a "minor heart attack." That, apparently, is the new medical term for "crack overdose."

  • From the Unclear on the Concept Department: 20th Century Fox has fired director Xavier Gens for making his upcoming film Hitman — based on the gruesome video game of the same name — too violent for the studio's taste. Umm... what did they think a video game flick called Hitman was going to be like? The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh?

  • Stop me if you've heard this one before: Tom Sizemore says he's giving up drugs for good this time. "I'm not trading my whole life for some powder," says the actor, who's inhaled more dust than an army of coalminers. Yeah, I'll believe that right up until Sizemore's next arrest. Any minute now.

  • America's Got Liquor: David Hasselhoff fell off the wagon yet again. Everyone guard your cheeseburgers.

  • 48 is 24 times two: Kiefer Sutherland accepted a sentence of 48 days in the slammer following his recent DUI arrest. The deal brokered by the 24 star's legal team allows him to serve the first 18 days of the sentence during the show's holiday break in December, then the remaining 30 after the end of the season's shooting schedule. Could be worse, I guess: Kiefer's character Jack Bauer was a heroin addict a couple of seasons ago. Or was that Tom Sizemore?

  • Like a Band-Aid on the hull of the Titanic: The San Francisco Giants, still reeling after a 90-loss campaign that ended with the team mired so deep in last place they couldn't see the rest of the National League West with the Hubble Telescope, have dismissed hitting coach Joe Lefebvre and first-base coach Willie Upshaw. Given the Giants' anemic offensive production this season, I can understand firing the hitting coach. But the first-base coach? His entire job consists of swatting players on the butt when they reach base. Darn it, Willie: I warned you not to squeeze.

  • This just in: Marion Jones is marrying O.J. Simpson. She might as well — she's been doing The Juice for years. Thank you! I'm here all week!

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Fun couple of the year

Look up the words "creepy" and "weird" in your Funk and Wagnalls, and you'll find this story:

Natalee Holloway's mom is dating JonBenet Ramsey's dad.

I'll bet they're a barrel of laughs at parties: "Want to hear about our dead daughters?" "Oh, gee, honey... look at the time."

To each his/her own. I suppose it's okay for these two to hook up. Just as long as they don't invite Marc Klaas or John Walsh over for a ménage à trois.

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Friday, October 05, 2007


This first Comic Art Friday of October is dedicated to everyone, everywhere, whose life has been touched by the scourge we call cancer. Although October is specifically National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let's take a moment to reflect upon the fact that "cancer" in fact describes a plethora of diseases, all of which deserve the intensive focus of medical science until we beat them into submission for good.

Some time back, I decided to create a Common Elements concept that acknowledged the universality of cancer. So far as I know, none of the major comics publishers has yet done a story about a superheroine afflicted with breast cancer. (Note to self: There's a pitch to be written.) There have been, however, at least a couple of male heroes who've battled the Big C. Veteran comics artist Christopher Ivy — best known as an inker on such titles as The Flash, Ghost Rider, and Moon Knight — brings together two of these stalwarts: Captain Marvel (who figured prominently in last week's Comic Art Friday presentation also) and Amazing Man.

Will Everett, better known as Amazing Man, is a relatively obscure yet fascinating superhero who first appeared in the delightfully nostalgic series All-Star Squadron, published by DC Comics in the early 1980s. Writer Roy Thomas borrowed the code name of an otherwise unrelated Golden Age hero for this character, who was based in part on 1930s Olympic track star Jesse Owens. Introduced as a villain, the new Amazing Man quickly saw the error of his ways and became a force for truth and justice as a member of the All-Star Squadron, fighting alongside such classic heroes as the original Hawkman and Atom during the World War II era.

In the 1990s, the now-aged Will Everett died of cancer. His grandson Will III picked up the Amazing Man mantle — along with his grandfather's power to transform his molecular structure into any kind of matter — and joined the Justice League. Although the latest Amazing Man hasn't been seen in some time, rumor has it that he may resurface soon in the current Justice Society of America series.

Even superheroes are not immune to the ravages of cancer. Those who battle this deadly disease every day, however — whether in their own bodies or on the battlefield of medical science — are real-life heroes in my book. May all their efforts succeed.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Doctor, my eyes!

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the video store: There's a Britney Spears sex tape floating around.

The guy who allegedly costars in the alleged amateur porn romp with the alleged former Mouseketeer says he hooked up with the Britster at the Four Seasons resort on the Big Island's Kohala Coast back in June.

"It was just normal sex, we didn't do anything crazy,"
says the Ron Jeremy wannabe. Nothing crazy, except for the video camera, I suppose.

This incessant rash of celebrity porn needs to stop, before some innocent party's retinas incur irreparable damage from beholding the wrong person in flagrante delicto. (Actually, that occurred already, after the widespread release of Dustin "Screech" Diamond's videographed sexploits.)

To this end, we offer Uncle Swan's Top Ten Celebrities Who Must Never, Ever, In the Name of All That's Decent, Get Caught Making a Sex Video:

10. Richard Belzer.

9. Ellen DeGeneres. Even if she kept the camera trained on Portia de Rossi the entire time.

8. Ryan Seacrest, or any of his American Idol cohorts.

7. The Geico Cavemen.

6. Donald Trump. Especially if his costar is Rosie O'Donnell.

5. Ralphie May.

4. Any member of the Osmond family.

3. Greta Van Susteren.

2. Abe Vigoda.

1. Joan and/or Melissa Rivers. (Ow! My retinas hurt just imagining that.)

BONUS LIST! Uncle Swan's Top Ten Celebrities Who, In All Likelihood, Have Already Made a Sex Video That You Really, Really Don't Want to See:

10. Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.

9. Roger Ebert. (Remember, he used to hang out with Russ Meyer.)

8. Sue Johanson, the Talk Sex host.

7. The Olsen twins, either separately (ugh!) or together (double ugh!).

6. Fred Thompson and his trophy wife.

5. Andy Dick.

4. Flavor Flav and Tiffany "New York" Pollard.

3. Clint Eastwood and either Sondra Locke or Frances Fisher. (Seriously, Clint: What were you thinking, man?)

2. Gallagher.

1. Vincent Gallo and Chloë Sevigny. (Oops... too late.)

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What's Up With That? #53: George 1, Kids 0

Just when I think the current resident of the Oval Office can't ascend to greater heights of lunacy than he's already reached, he vetoes health insurance for lower-income children.

Ye gods.

The bill President Bush vetoed would add $35 billion to the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) over the next five years, enabling an additional four million kids to participate in the program. (About seven million children are presently enrolled, mostly from families earning more than the Medicaid maximum, but who can't afford private health insurance.) The additional money would come via a 40-cent-per-pack increase in the federal cigarette tax.

Because wealthy tobacco company executives and lobbyists are more valuable to the current administration than poor kids in need of health coverage — many of whom, if allowed to grow up healthy, would probably vote Democratic anyway — George put the kibosh on the legislation.

Bush can spend countless billions sending America's dedicated servicemen and servicewomen to their deaths in his pointless family vendetta in Iraq, but he can't stand to see a few bucks going to keep American children healthy.

The mind boggles.

The Prez's argument against the SCHIP upgrade is that it's a step in the direction of government-run health care. Again, government-paid death and destruction, good; government-paid health care for lower-income kids, bad. In a word: Huh?

Here's hoping that enough Congressional Republicans realize that poor people vote — especially when the interests of their children are at stake — and get off their partisan dime to overturn this indefensible veto.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

I was standing on a corner in Phoenix, Arizona

Notes from my weekend junket to the Valley of the Sun with my chorus, Voices in Harmony:
  • My first observation about Phoenix, from the air approaching Sky Harbor International Airport: Brown. Everything is brown. The land is brown. The buildings are mostly brown. Would it be too much to ask to broaden the color palette just a touch?

  • High marks for the Wyndham Phoenix Hotel. My 18th-floor room was nicely laid out and well appointed. I especially liked the bathroom, with its separated vanity and toilet/shower areas, full-length mirror (mighty handy when one is donning a tuxedo), and spacious closet with ample hangers. The bed may have been the most comfortable I've found in a hotel. All of the staff I dealt with were friendly and helpful. The one meal I ordered from room service arrived in a timely fashion, and was palatable to boot. My sole request: More (and faster) elevators to the guest rooms, please.

  • The Wyndham has a Starbucks right in the lobby — that's a gold star all by itself. In case you were curious, a vanilla latte at Starbucks tastes exactly the same no matter where in the world you drink it.

  • My hotel room window overlooked the Chase Tower, Arizona's tallest building, across the street. In its mirrored windows, I could watch jet aircraft landing and taking off.

  • I was surprised by the number of homeless people wandering the streets of downtown Phoenix. (Almost as many as in San Francisco. But not quite.) Although, after I thought about it, this made perfect sense. If you had to sleep outdoors, where would you rather do it: in Phoenix, where it's dry and warm (if not downright hot) most nights during the year, or, say, Minneapolis?

  • For a city relatively close to the border, I would have expected to find better Mexican cuisine in downtown Phoenix. Both of the meals I had in Mexican restaurants, however, were unimpressive. If I had a ballista in my backyard, I could hurl a boulder and hit three or four better Mexican joints.

  • Phoenix Symphony Hall makes an excellent venue both for performing and for enjoying a performance. Attractive environment, great acoustics, and surprisingly comfortable seats.

  • If you want to know what's really going on in a community, read the alternative weekly newspaper. Phoenix has a terrific one: Phoenix New Times. (So does Sonoma County, by the way. The folks at the North Bay Bohemian do an outstanding job.) Although I have to admit, I didn't know that a single locale could boast as many adult entertainment options as are advertised in the back pages of the Phoenix New Times. I suppose that when you live in a city where it's hot most of the year, it's easy to find people who are eager to get naked.

  • The best business to be in right now, apparently: Urban infrastructure. In both of the major cities I've visited in the past few months — Denver, and now Phoenix — half the streets in the downtown area are undergoing major construction. Somebody's making a killing in that racket.

  • The big story in Phoenix over the weekend: A would-be traveler wigged out at Sky Harbor Airport on Friday, after arriving late for her US Airways flight and being denied opportunity to board the already-departing plane. The 45-year-old woman from New York City later died while in police custody. I hereby affirm that I personally did nothing to provoke this incident.

  • On my flight coming home, I ran into the world's greatest vocal percussionist and live-looper — the astoundingly gifted Andrew Chaikin, better known these days as Kid Beyond. The Kid and I hadn't crossed paths since he was performing with San Francisco's a cappella pioneers, The House Jacks, a decade ago. (Frankly, I was stunned that he remembered who I was.) If Kid Beyond comes to your town, you owe it to yourself to buy a ducat and check out his act. In an era of talentless pretenders, this guy's is the real stone-cold deal. Drop by his Web site while you're thinking about it, and get a taste of his awesomeness.

  • I'd been saving a book for the plane trips to and from Phoenix, and it rocks like a house afire: Promise Me, the latest novel by Harlan Coben. It's Coben's first book in seven years to headline his favorite protagonist, former basketball star turned sports agent Myron Bolitar. If you enjoy a crackling suspense read in the modern style, hie thyself over to Amazon and pick up a few Cobens. You'll be glad you did.

  • As for the competition: Voices in Harmony came in second, as expected, with a score of 89.7%. That's a full two percentage points higher than our sixth-place score at International three months ago. (We'd have been fourth with these numbers.) Not bad for a contest set that included a ballad we began learning only eight weeks ago. Sweat equity pays off.

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This one's not just for the ladies

October, this year as every year, is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I'm not much of a cause or campaign guy. I make one exception, and this is it. Regular SSTOL visitors know that my wife KJ is a breast cancer survivor (first diagnosed in September 2000) who's currently fighting a metastatic form of the disease. With one American woman in eight afflicted by this scourge, chances are that someone you know and love either has had breast cancer... or will.

Plead with the women in your life to learn self-examination techniques, and apply them rigorously. It's not just a matter for older women — KJ was first diagnosed at 34, by which time her tumor had probably been growing for several years.

If you're a woman, check yourself. Early and often. We love you, and want you to stick around awhile.

If you have a few extra bucks in your pocket this month, you could do worse than donating them to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, or the breast cancer research entity of your choice. Your sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, wives, and lovers will thank you.

Let's find a cure. Soon.