Friday, November 30, 2007

Black Friday, part two

Previously on Comic Art Friday, we played the game of "before and after" with a pair of pencil drawings recently inked by one of the best embellishers in the business, par excellence Bob Almond. By way of an e-mail interview, Bob kindly provided his thoughts about his work on these two commissions.

If you haven't yet read last Friday's post, go check it out. We'll wait for you.

Back already? Did your lips get tired?

Now let's dive into the second half of our Almond Joy. (Because with Almond Joy, you can have half, and still have a whole. I love that.)

The first drawing we're going to examine posed an interesting challenge for Bob, but one that I knew he could ably handle. Brazilian artist Jorge Correa Jr. — best known for his work on the Stargate SG-1 comic books for Avatar Press — created for my Common Elements series this pairing of a fetching Donna Troy, the original Wonder Girl, with longtime Avengers stalwart Simon Williams, code name Wonder Man.

I love Jorge's composition and execution of this scenario, and the spot-on personalities with which he invests the characters. As you can see, however, he made the artistic decision to ink the piece in an open fashion, primarily in outline.

While this technique works perfectly well for a comic page that will be enhanced by the talents of a digital color artist (who will add shadow and dimension to the published art using computer-based effects), it's less than optimal for a drawing intended for display in its raw, black-and-white state. To my eye, Jorge's sparing use of defining shadow (known as "spotting blacks" in comic art parlance) gave the piece a cold, off-putting feel.

To the rescue rode the cavalry, in the person of Bob Almond.

Bob had previously completed the inking on my Brandon Peterson Supergirl pinup, which the original artist had inadvertently left unfinished. Knowing Bob's uncanny ability to mesh his inking style with practically any pencil artist's technique, I felt confident that he could tackle the even greater challenge of blending his own ink line with Jorge Correa's to add depth and dimension to this already finished drawing. And, of course, I was right.

I asked Bob:
What's your philosophy about spotting blacks? Obviously, your approach will vary somewhat from one penciler to another. But in general, when you look at a new piece of pencil art, how do you start thinking about where the blacks will go, and exactly how much you're going to add?
Here's the reply from our master inker:
This piece needed some contrasts, IMHO, to bring out the elegant line work already established. But I try not to be random about it. I follow general light source and shadow rules, and try not to be "spotty" with the blacks.

Applying blacks can help add to the composition and design of the image, as any followers of Mike Mignola (the creator of
Hellboy) can attest.
In last Friday's post, we saw Mr. Almond's work on a classically styled Wonder Woman pinup by one of my favorite pencilers, Al Rio. Our fourth and final project in this group would once again bring together the talents of these two great artists, but in a much more complex fashion.

As a preliminary rendering for a commission project, Al Rio drew this rough sketch of that legendary couple, Spider-Man and his bride, Mary Jane.

Bob Almond's completion of this artwork would require substantial penciling, adding a detailed urban background that Rio merely suggested with a few well-placed lines.

The transformation in the finished piece is awe-inspiring. Anyone viewing these two images together can plainly see that the inker's job — contrary to persistent misbelief — consists of far more than simply tracing the penciler's lines.

Take note here of the variety of techniques Bob uses to create texture, especially the rooftops of the buildings and Mary Jane's flowing hair. I pointed this out to Bob:
You excel in the use of texturing effects. How did that area of your artistry evolve?
Mr. Almond's answer:
Around the mid- to late '90s, I was inking mostly in brush, and getting much better at it. But I felt that over time I was being pigeon-holed as that "clean, slick inker" guy, and it was limiting the kinds of work I could be hired for.

So, after a couple of years of working with Sal Velluto (the penciler with whom Bob teamed for a highly regarded run on
Black Panther), we had discussions about using various markers and different approaches to the work. Along the way, I started to increase the use of textural effects to make my work less "clean and slick": spattering and smudging ink with a toothbrush, my finger, found objects, etc.; dry brush; scraping razor blades through the work; erasing over ink; and grainy crayon textures.

There are also the various Zip-a-Tones and rub-on Instantex texture sheets that I've used fairly regularly all along. I stocked up a considerable inventory in the early '90s, and it's good that I did, since they don't make that stuff any more, except from manga-based art suppliers. Not that one needs to use screens much any more, due to the advanced digital coloring done today, but it sure pays off with black-and-white commissions.
As Bob observes in his online gallery, he has completed nearly two dozen commissions for me over the past few years, and hundreds more for other collectors. He remains in demand for published projects also, having recently completed runs on Marvel's Annihilation: Conquest—Quasar and Wildstorm's A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Given the broad range of his work, I asked Bob:
In your career, you've inked hundreds of characters. Do you have favorites? Are there characters you've longed to work on, but never had the opportunity (or perhaps fewer opportunities than you'd like)?
Upon reflection, the Squiddy Award-winning inker opined thus:
I guess working on the classic DC, and especially Marvel, characters excites me the most, since I grew up with them in the Bronze Age, and I have a considerable amount of Silver Age titles as well. I don't recall any favorites that I have yet to ink, but as a fan, I never tire of Avengers commissions. (The "good girl" commissions are a thrill, too!)

I have more of a chance to ink a diversity of characters through commissions, thankfully, since my work on classic characters in the comics is more limited and luck of the draw. I was ecstatic to be hired for
Warlock, JSA, and Black Panther, but for every high-profile project, there's also the lower-profile material which very few may see. They are always fun to do, since you often get a little bit more freedom with the work. Sometimes you get to establish with the penciler a particular look for the characters that other artists will use down the road — something you don't usually get to do with the classic "big guns."

I've been very lucky for all the work I've had over the last 15 years, and I can't complain. Nostalgia motivates me the most, but I find that good comic art of various styles will inspire me in general. Just to be doing comics in some capacity is a lifelong dream. Ink runs in my veins, dude!
We here at SSTOL thank Bob Almond, both for his cogent comments and for his always amazing art.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

See you later, Dr. Gator

Let's all raise our glasses in memory of James Robert Cade, MD, who died today of kidney failure at age 80.

Who's James Robert Cade? you ask. To which Uncle Swan replies: Only one of the most important figures in the history of modern athletics.

Dr. Cade, you see, was the man who invented Gatorade.

In 1965, Dr. Cade, a member of the medical school faculty at the University of Florida, was asked a seemingly imponderable question by one of the university's assistant football coaches, Dwayne Douglas: "Doctor, why don't football players wee-wee after a game?" (We used euphemisms like "wee-wee" in 1965, children.)

Cade researched the matter, and discovered that football players sweated off as much as 18 pounds of water weight during the average three-hour contest. The good doctor reasoned that it might be possible to develop a supplement that would replenish the fluids and salt the players perspired away, thus improving their stamina and overall health.

Cade and his staff went to work brewing up their magical potion. After several less-than-successful attempts, they hit upon the formula we now know as Gatorade — named, of course, after the Florida football team, not in honor of any reptilian ingredient in the concoction itself. (Or so Cade said.)

And thus, an industry was born.

The University of Florida, incidentally, collects a royalty on the name Gatorade from the manufacturer, PepsiCo — an arrangement that has netted the school more than $150 million over the decades. Righteous bucks, as Jeff Spicoli would say.

Personally, I find the flavor and mouthfeel of Gatorade and similar "sports drinks" repellent. But you can't argue with $7.5 billion per year in gross revenue.

Dr. Cade, I'm sure, would drink to that.

One final note: The people at Pepsi would like to assure you that Dr. Cade's death from kidney failure is not directly attributable to 40-plus years of drinking Gatorade. At least, that's the company line.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Hall of Fame hot stove

It's an excellent year to be listed on the ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, especially for those nominees who've been waiting patiently for election.

One of the challenges for Hall of Fame eligibles is that the newest names on the ballot seem to garner the most attention every year, leaving a handful of worthy former players struggling to accumulate the 75 percent of the available votes needed for induction. Last year, for example, superstars Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. were newly eligible, and the hubbub surrounding their arrival on the ballot pushed such holdovers as Jim Rice, Rich "Goose" Gossage, and Andre "The Hawk" Dawson further down the priority list.

Fortunately for the aforementioned gentlemen, none of the 11 first-time candidates on this year's Hall of Fame ballot warrant election. That could mean that deserving stars such as Rice, who's in his 14th year of eligibility, and Gossage, who's on the list for the ninth time, might have a better shot at swaying voters.

That's not to say that this year's ballot rookies are total scrubs. Outfielder Tim "Rock" Raines will probably get quite a few votes. A solid player with a long (parts of 23 seasons) and distinguished (a seven-time All-Star, with one batting title to his credit) career, Raines was a very good — though not quite Hall of Fame caliber — major leaguer.

David Justice was a pretty fair ballplayer in his best years, too, though Justice will probably be remembered most as "that lucky stiff who was married to Halle Berry for three years."

Three former Giants appear on the ballot for the first time: versatile Shawon Dunston, and relief aces Robb Nen and the late Rod "Shooter" Beck. As it has in the past for other prominent players who died either during or shortly after their active years, the Hall of Fame has waived the customary five-years-retired requirement to add Beck (who passed away unexpectedly in June) to this year's ballot. It won't help — Shooter was a terrific pitcher for several seasons, but not a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. Nen and Dunston weren't even that close.

Of the holdovers, I'd vote for Rice, Gossage, and Dawson without batting an eyelash. Rice was the American League's best power-hitting position player in the late 1970s and early '80s. Gossage was as dominant a closer as baseball had seen up until that point. Eight-time All-Star Dawson suffered the indignity of being the best player on an interminable skein of crappy Montreal Expos and Chicago Cubs teams during his 21 years in the bigs. All three, in my never-humble opinion, should have been elected to the Hall long before now.

I'd vote for superstar reliever Lee Smith (a then-record 478 career saves) and longtime Detroit Tigers ace Jack Morris (the best starting pitcher in the American League throughout the 1980s), too.

But then, they don't give me a ballot.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Black Friday, part one

In the world of retail sales, the day after Thanksgiving is commonly referred to as "Black Friday." It's the day on which many retailers get into the positive, or "black ink," side of the accounting ledger, due to the post-Turkey Day shopping boom.

Here at SSTOL, we're dubbing today (and one week from today, also) "Black Friday" for a different reason. For the next two Comic Art Fridays, we're going to focus on the importance of black ink in the world of comic art.

Specifically, we're showcasing four recently commissioned works by one of our favorite inking specialists, artist par excellence Bob Almond. Bob was also gracious enough to consent to an e-mail interview about these projects, excerpts from which we'll include as we go along.

So, in the words of the Black-Eyed Peas (keeping the "black" theme going), "Let's get it started."

DC Comics artist Matthew Clark — he's drawn such acclaimed series as Batman and the Outsiders, Wonder Woman, and The Adventures of Superman — drew this lush, graceful pinup of Ms. Marvel on a commission earlier this year.

Here's the same drawing, after embellishment in ink by Bob Almond.

Comic Art Friday asked Bob:
What challenges do you face in inking an artist with a fine line like Matthew Clark's? Are there artists whose line is less or more difficult for you to interpret, and if so, why?
Mr. Almond replied:
Some pencilers are very careful to include all line weights in their drawing; some others, not so much. Matthew fits into the former category. It was very clear that he was implying that many of the lines would be super-thin; in fact, I could barely make out some of those lines (they didn't show up in my photocopy of the pencils). But I love the extreme range and delicate approach to the work.

Some artists fit in the latter category, so you don't always know what they're looking for. It means that, as the inker, I need to structure the line weights as I see fit.

I enjoy both approaches. The first is a challenge to try to simulate the graphite lines in ink, to capture what the artist intends, while the second group allows me freedom to try different things.
The other single-character pinup in this quartet of commissions was this Wonder Woman sketch by Brazilian artist Al Rio. As mentioned previously on Comic Art Friday, this was Al's preliminary drawing for his contribution to Wonder Woman Day 2007, a benefit for women's shelters and domestic violence awareness.

Bob Almond finished Rio's sketch in ink, resulting in the pinup you see below.

Bob and I have done nearly two dozen commission projects together. At various times, we've had occasion to discuss the raw materials involved — in particular, the widely varying grades of art paper used by different pencilers. I asked Bob:
Talk a little about the challenge of inking on different types of art board — a moving target that an inker constantly faces.
Here's Mr. Almond's take:
I rarely have a problem with lesser-quality boards since I don't use quills much at all, and bleeding is a factor mostly with pen usage.

Sometimes, the pencils won't erase well off the finished work (but the ink, sadly, will). And if I need to use a frisket sheet to cover up areas while I spatter ink over other selected areas, sometimes when I lift the 'low-tack' sheet, it will lift some of the artwork with it.

All you can do is be prepared, and roll with the punches.
We'll feature two more projects from the Almond inkwell, along with more commentary from Bob, next week.

That's your Comic Art "Black Friday." If you're headed to your nearby mall or Mart (either Wal- or K-) today, be careful out there. Those bargain hunters can be bull-goose loco.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Collector's Edition

We come once again, by the grace of the Almighty, to the fourth Thursday in yet another November. With the aroma of roast turkey and pumpkin pie wafting in the air, let's peruse our annual alphabetical analysis of the diverse things your Uncle Swan is thankful for today.

Acetylsalicylic acid — aspirin, if you please. Still one of the world's great wonder drugs after 150 years.

Back Issue, that spectacular bimonthly magazine edited by Michael Eury. It chronicles the comics of the 1970s and '80s, and the people who created them. It's like a mainline infusion of blissful nostalgia every eight weeks.

Coffee. Nothing's better — or more vital for survival — in the morning. Except maybe air.

Denzel Washington, the finest American actor working today. I'm watching Inside Man as I compose this post. Look up charisma in the cinematic dictionary, and there's Denzel's picture.

Exchange Bank. So far, they've managed never to lose a cent of my money. The drive-through tellers at the Rohnert Park branch always remember my name.

Fitz and Brooks, kicking sports talk old-school weekdays from noon until three on KNBR 680, "The Sports Leader." Bob Fitzgerald and Rod Brooks may well be brothers from different mothers. Only Rod is actually a brother, but you know what I mean.

God. He's the reason everything else exists.

Horses, my daughter's favorite animals, next to Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.

Inkers, making comic book pencil art come alive. Thanks to Bob Almond, Joe Rubinstein, and Bob McLeod, who all did splendiferous inking commissions for me this year.

James Bond, MI6 Agent 007. Shaken, but never stirred. I'm still a Connery man after all these years, but that Daniel Craig fellow isn't half bad.

KJ and KM, my raisons d'etre.

Loco moco, the best in Hawaiian plate lunch. Sticky rice, hamburger patties, with fried eggs on top, smothered in brown gravy. I'd drive up to Ohana right now if they were open at this hour.

Mugs, chronicling the places I've been, the events I've witnessed, and things that just plain fascinate me. I need more wall space to hang them, at least until the next big quake.

Newsarama, bringing you all the comics industry news that's fit to download.

Ocean's Eleven, either the Sinatra-Dino-Sammy original or the Clooney-Pitt-Damon remake. It's Vegas, baby.

PokerStars. I'm SwanShadow. Come play with me.

Quizno's. They got a pepper bar! We love the subs, but we miss the spongmonkeys.

Reading glasses, my constant reminder that these old eyes ain't what they used to be, and they were never any great shakes to begin with.

Southwest Airlines, for not drilling me into the earth from 35,000 feet — or losing my luggage — on either of the trips I took with them this year.

Target. You need stuff, and they have it.

Underwear. I'm a briefs guy. Fruit of the Loom. Plain white. I know: Too much information. Sue me.

Voices in Harmony, my chorus. I love all 100-plus of you guys, in a strictly male bonding sort of way. We make magic every Tuesday night. Most weeks, I don't even mind the 200-mile round trip commute to rehearsal.

Wikipedia, not always accurate, but mighty handy.

Xenophilia, because I love strange things. Even you, if you're strange.

You Don't Know Jack, the funniest online trivia game ever. I look eagerly forward to a fresh dose every Monday.

Zombie Jamboree: Back to back, belly to belly; well, I don't give a damn, 'cause I'm stone dead already. Do it, Rockapella!

Enjoy your Turkey Day, friend reader. (Or your Tofurkey Day, if you happen to be a vegetarian. I think you're crazy, but that's on you.) Hug the people you love. Let them know how grateful you are for the blessings they bring to your life.

And don't make them wait until next November to hear it again.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Please don't squeeze the Whipple

My next visit to the bathroom won't be quite the same...

Mr. Whipple has passed away.

If you're of a certain age, you can't help but recall those incessant commercials for Charmin toilet paper from the mid-1960s through the late '80s, in which bespectacled grocer George Whipple uttered his trademark catchphrase: "Please don't squeeze the Charmin!" Of course, once Mr. Whipple wrapped his clutching fingers around a package of that delectably pillowy bathroom tissue, he could never help getting his own squeeze on.

The actor behind the Whipple, Dick Wilson, died this morning at age 91. The British-born Riccardo DiGuglielmo grew up in Canada, and moved to the U.S. after serving in the Canadian Air Force during World War II. As an actor, he used his mother's maiden name to avoid being typecast in ethnic Italian roles.

Instead, he was typecast as a fussy merchant with a fetish for groping toilet paper. I suppose that's better, in some ways.

Wilson played numerous non-Whipple roles during his seven-decade acting career. He was a frequent guest star on Bewitched and Hogan's Heroes, and appeared in dozens of other sitcoms and TV dramas over the years. Wilson even turned up in a Cheech and Chong movie. (Rumors that he rolled a doobie out of Charmin proved to be erroneous.)

Although Procter & Gamble put Mr. Whipple out to pasture in 1985 (ads featuring Whipple continued in repeats for a few years thereafter), Wilson made a brief return to the character in 1999, when a retired Mr. Whipple returned to the supermarket to sell an upgraded version of Charmin.

Dick Wilson, I'm dedicating my next flush to you.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Queen of Jeopardy!

Hearty congratulations to Celeste DiNucci, winner of this year's Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions.

In one of the most unpredictable tournaments in Jeopardy! history, Celeste emerged triumphant, edging out a narrow victory over crafty Canadian Doug Hicton in the finals. Celeste garnered $250,000 and the adoration of millions for her stellar efforts.

Despite my nearly 20 years of association with Jeopardy!, and the fact that I've been privileged to meet — and in a few cases, compete against — some of the best players ever to pick up a signaling device, I've never been any great shakes at evaluating competitor talent, or at forecasting tournament outcomes. This year's Tournament of Champions was no different.

Two weeks ago, I wouldn't have figured any of the three finalists to make it out of the first round. That's not intended as an insult to them, in any way — I just thought there were several stronger players in the field. But Celeste and Doug, in particular, showed themselves worthy to stand among the game's elite. Celeste is an impressive and personable grand champion, and only the third woman in Jeopardy! history to win a Tournament of Champions.

Celeste came within a hairsbreadth of missing the finals altogether. In her semifinal match, she and Christian Haines — one of the pre-tournament favorites — finished the game tied at $15,401. Host Alex Trebek announced a tie-breaking category, "Child's Play," then read the final answer: "A Longfellow poem and a Lillian Hellman play about a girls' boarding school share this timely title." Celeste rang in first, and delivered the correct question: "What is The Children's Hour?"

Way to go, Celeste!

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Friday, November 16, 2007

By any other name

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet...

Juliet's oft-quoted (and, to be brutally frank, oft-misquoted) line in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet affirms the fact that a thing is what it is, regardless of what title one attaches to it. While sparking a similar thought, Abraham Lincoln purportedly asked the riddle, "How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg?" To which Honest Abe supplied the answer: "Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

As is true in literature and in pithy folk wisdom, so it is in comic books, too.

A few months back on Comic Art Friday, we featured this Common Elements artwork by longtime Iron Man writer/artist Bob Layton. That's Booster Gold on the left, and of course, Captain America on the right. (Click the image for an enlarged view.)

As noted previously, the "common element" between these two heroes is the fact that they are displaced in time. Captain America began his career in the 1940s before an extended period in suspended animation (he was frozen in a block of ice), while Booster Gold is a refugee from the far-flung future (the 25th century, to be precise).

The pair, however, share another distinction: Cap and Booster each temporarily battled evil under a different costumed identity. During the post-Watergate period, a disheartened Steve Rogers — the man behind Captain America's mask — spent several issues of Captain America and the Falcon calling himself "Nomad, the Man Without a Country." (Richard Nixon had that effect on a lot of people.) Most recently, during the DC Comics maxiseries 52, Michael Jon Carter — better known to the world as Booster Gold — took on the guise of Supernova, in order to perpetuate the false understanding that Booster himself had been killed.

I thought it would be fun to team Cap and Booster again, this time using their erstwhile alter egos. To maintain the thread of continuity, I once again commissioned Bob Layton to handle the artistic honors. You can see the result below. That's Supernova in the foreground, with Nomad in hot pursuit.

Speaking of the redoubtable Mr. Layton, Iron Man fans are excited about Marvel Comics' upcoming Iron Man/Dr. Doom miniseries, which Bob is co-plotting with his former collaborator, writer David Michelinie. Bob is also inking the book, over the pencils of longtime Silver Surfer artist Ron Lim. Iron Man/Dr. Doom debuts early next year.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Curse you, Matt Damon

Well, it's happened yet again.

I've been passed over by People Magazine for the annual Sexiest Man Alive honors. This year, Matt Damon got the nod.

I'm so much sexier than Matt Damon, it's not even funny. Matt Damon looks like the dweeby kid brother of your best friend from high school. He's Good Will Hunting, for pity's sake.

That's the problem with America: No one knows real masculine pulchritude when they see it.

Anyway, here are the rest of the girly-men People thought were sexier than I was this year:

2. Patrick Dempsey (McBoring)
3. Ryan Reynolds (sounds like a Marvel Comics secret identity)
4. Brad Pitt (he's so two years ago)
5. James McAvoy (the wimpy doctor from The Last King of Scotland? really?)
6. Johnny Depp (is weird sexy?)
7. Dave Annable (I'll confess — I had to Google him; I'd never heard of the guy)
8. Will Smith (he got Jada's vote)
9. Javier Bardem (not fair; he's got that Latin Lothario thing going)
10. Shemar Moore (okay, yeah — he could play me in the SwanShadow biopic)

Ah, well. There's always next year.

Unless Clooney resurfaces.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

C.C. Sabathia, see what you have done

Congratulations to North Bay native C.C. Sabathia, who today was awarded this year's American League Cy Young Award.

The Cleveland Indians' ace posted a 19-7 record in the baseball season just concluded, with a 3.21 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 241 innings pitched, the most in the majors this year.

Sabathia becomes the first African American pitcher to win the Cy Young in 22 years, since the Mets' Dwight Gooden in 1985, and the first in the American League since Vida Blue won with Oakland in 1971.

With his 19 victories, Sabathia fell one win short of becoming the 14th member of the Black Aces, the elite group of African American pitchers who have won 20 games in a major league season.

Not too shabby for a kid from Vallejo.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Honor a veteran today

On this Veterans' Day...

Capt. Carol Danvers (USAF, ret.) thanks all current and former members of the United States armed forces for their honorable service.

Shake a veteran's hand today, and let him or her know that you appreciate their contributions to our country.


Friday, November 09, 2007

Ink 'em up, Joe

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of legendary comic artist Paul Norris, who died on Monday at age 93.

Norris will be most widely recalled as the co-creator of Aquaman. Apart from his Sea King, however, Norris enjoyed a lengthy and varied career drawing numerous comic books and newspaper comics. Most notably, he drew the daily strip Brick Bradford for 35 years, beginning in 1952.

Norris was one of the last survivors among the great Golden Age comic creators. His work will live on long after him.

Speaking of comic artists with lengthy and varied careers, I recently received a package of completed commissions from Joe Rubinstein, who's been inking comics for almost as long as I've been reading them. As you Comic Art Friday regulars know, that's pretty darned long.

Joe started inking jobs for the major comics publishers while still in his teens, as an assistant to influential giants Wally Wood, Neal Adams, and Dick Giordano. Unlike many of his contemporaries who entered the field in the early 1970s, Joe has continued working regularly in comics to this very day. His list of inking credits covers pretty much every familiar superhero published in the last 35 years, plus hundreds more that even Joe has probably forgotten. His line work — smooth, crisp, graceful, eminently adaptable yet distinctive — continues to flourish. (He's also one heck of a painter, specializing in fine portraiture.)

So let's take a before-and-after look at what just rolled off Joe's drawing board.

The very first two-character piece I ever commissioned was this Michael Dooney stunner featuring the first two Marvel Comics heroines to bear the code name Spider-Woman. That's the original Spider-Woman, Jessica Drew, on the left; her successor, Julia Carpenter, on the right.

This was the commission that inspired and laid the foundation for my Common Elements theme series. For that reason, it carries a mountain of sentimental value for me. Joe and I first discussed him inking it shortly after Dooney drew it, nearly three years ago. It took me a long time to pull the trigger, but I'm glad that I finally did.

Speaking of Common Elements, one of the pieces in that series that consistently draws raves from artists and other collectors is this pairing of the Valkyrie (late of the seminal '70s superteam, the Defenders) and Nightcrawler (longtime stalwart of the X-Men and Excalibur), drawn by the incredible Dave Ross.

Like the Dooney Spider-Women artwork, I had Joe in mind to ink this one almost from the day I first saw it. And of course, when I finally let him have it, Joe did a spectacular job. He even went to the surprising (to me, anyway) length of contacting Dave Ross to get his input on how the inking ought to be approached. A true professional, that Rubinstein.

I love the work of Brazilian artist Al Rio. I'd own several dozen of Al's fully penciled pieces if I had the means to afford them. Alas, I'm a mere working stiff, and Al's commissions cost serious bank. I've had, however, remarkable success picking up Al's less costly rough sketches and having them embellished in ink by other artists.

This Supergirl sketch was a preliminary drawing for a commission Al did recently. (His finished piece features the Maid of Steel flying in from another angle, with a completely different aerial perspective of the building behind her.)

The moment I saw this sketch available for sale, I wanted Joe to ink it. Originally, I had planned to send Joe a different Rio drawing in this batch of commission projects. Once I scored this little number, that piece ended up in the hands of another extremely talented inker instead. Both decisions turned out perfectly.

I never cease to marvel (no pun intended) at how two comic artists — one working in pencil, the other in ink — can seamlessly meld their imaginations and skills to create artworks that reflect the talents of each. I consider myself tremendously fortunate to have so many beautiful examples of that phenomenon in my collection.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Devil made them do it

You remember the Tampa Bay Devil Rays? First in your hearts, last in the American League East?

Well, there ain't no Devil in Tampa Bay any more.

In a dramatic triumph of superficiality over substance, the owners of the northern Florida baseball franchise have changed the team's name from Devil Rays to simply Rays.

Apparently, someone in the Tampa Bay front office determined that pesky "Devil" was the reason for the club's perpetual lack of success. (The Rays have never lost fewer than 90 games in a 162-game season, have never reached the playoffs, and have finished out of last place in their division only once — in 2004, when they came in fourth instead of their usual fifth.)

Leaving the stench of Satanic sulfur in their wake, the team, which plays its home games in St. Peterburg's Tropicana Field (known affectionately to Rays fans as "the Trop," and less affectionately to the design-conscious as "the Juice Box"), will debut in 2008 with a truncated title intended to reflect the golden beams that daily bathe the Sunshine State, plus a new color scheme (navy blue and light blue), logo, and uniforms.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg must have forgotten that the team already went through one previous "let's change our fortunes by changing our costumes" makeover in its brief decade-long existence. Back in 2001, Tampa Bay ditched its rainbow-hued uniform logo in favor of a more sedate green, and swapped the "Devil Rays" brand for "Rays," albeit with the namesake manta ray (aka "devilfish") still incorporated into the design. That 2001 club lost 100 games for the first time in franchise history.

Maybe it wasn't the unis, after all.

It's high time that the decision-makers at the Juice Box figured out that the key to winning ballgames isn't fabric swatches and focus groups — it's signing some players who can actually, you know, play. Dressing the same tired roster of minor league rejects in fancy new clothes makes as much sense as painting lipstick on a pig.

Or, for that matter, on a Devil Ray.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What's Up With That? #56: Jonesin' for Conan

The headline reads like a comedy bit from the subject's late-night TV show: "Priest arrested for stalking Conan O'Brien." But according to the usual news sources, it's for real.

David Ajemian, a Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, reportedly harassed the red-headed comic for the past year, sending O'Brien sinister e-mails and letters — on official parish stationery, no less — and threatening his parents. Ajemian referred to himself as one of Conan's "most dangerous fans."

This story is bizarre on so many levels. Of all the celebrities and semi-celebrities in the entertainment world, a guy's going to fixate on Conan O'Brien? The only person I can envision wanting to hassle Conan is Jay Leno, whose show O'Brien is scheduled to take over in a couple of years.

Besides which, at age 44, isn't Conan a trifle old to land on a priest's hit parade? I thought they mostly savored the younger flesh.

I haven't watched Conan much since he replaced David Letterman back in 1993. (Who'da thunk he'd last 14 years, much less wind up being groomed for the Tonight Show?) I've flipped past Late Night on rare occasions over the years, but Conan's style of humor still doesn't hold much appeal for me.

Apparently he's big with the seminary crowd, though.

Must be an Irish thing.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Find a line, and picket

Although I'm not a member of the Writers Guild of America (I'm a writer, but not that kind of writer), and am not especially a big fan of unionized work stoppages, I empathize with the POV of the WGA in its latest dispute with film and television producers.

Writing is the invisible magic of media. Practically everything you see on a screen, large or small, is written by someone — more often than not, someone drastically underpaid when compared to the so-called talent on camera. The wit and wisdom of the people you see actually springs from the minds of people you don't see — people who work hard at their craft and deserve their fair share of the revenue their efforts help generate.

The problem is that writing is a deceptively simple-looking talent. Everyone thinks he or she can write — why, even a chimpanzee can sit at a keyboard and bang out strings of characters. Yet very few people can write exceptionally well, with clarity and verve and energy and imagination. Producers (and trust me, this is as true in the advertising/marketing world as it is in show business) always undervalue the contributions of writers, mostly because they think "anyone can write."

In a word: Balderdash.

The current WGA walkout reminds me of my tenuous connection to the union's last major strike in 1988. The beginning of that strike coincided with the taping of my original five-game run on Jeopardy! Although there were picket lines in front of Hollywood Center Studios, where the show was then based, on the days my shows taped, Jeopardy! itself was not directly affected because the show's writing staff weren't members of the WGA.

As the contestant coordinators explained the situation to us, game show writers were considered production assistants rather than screenwriters, and thus ineligible for WGA membership. I don't know whether that's still the case 19 years later, but all of the news accounts I've read seemed to suggest that game shows and other reality programming won't be directly affected by the strike unless other trade unions honor the WGA picket lines.

I wish there could be a less divisive method of resolving the impasse between the WGA's membership and The Powers That Be in Hollywood. But here's hoping that the writers get an honest shake before it's all through.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

And the boss don't mind sometimes if you act a fool

A woman in Syracuse, New York, spent three days in a hospital after her dentist broke a drill bit in her skull while dancing to the theme from Car Wash.

Needless to say, litigation ensued.

As patient Brandy Fanning was undergoing preparation for an emergency tooth extraction at the Syracuse Community Health Center, the dentist — Dr. George Trusty — got his Rose Royce groove on. According to Fanning's lawsuit, Dr. Trusty "performed rhythmical steps and movements to the song 'Car Wash.'"

The boogie-down continued until Dr. Trusty (who, at least on this occasion, was not) snapped off the tip of his drill into the roof of Fanning's mouth. Trusty's efforts to extract the drill bit with a metal hook only succeeded in jamming the bit deeply into the sinuses behind Fanning's left eye socket. Emergency surgery saved the eye, but the patient continues to suffer "facial swelling, nerve damage and chronic infections," according to the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, in the afterlife, Richard Pryor is laughing his head off over this.

Car Wash is one of those "traffic light" movies for me. I've seen it dozens of times, but anytime I'm surfing the tube late at night and it's playing on some cable channel, I can't help but stop and watch, at least for a few minutes.

Although the music and styles in director Michael Schultz's now 30-year-old flick show the ravages of time, the many humorous moments remain as funny as ever, with the cast of colorful characters still engaging:
  • T.C. (stand-up comic Franklyn Ajaye), the lovestruck dreamer with the humongous Afro who imagines himself a superhero called The Fly...

  • Lonnie (former Hogan's Heroes costar Ivan Dixon), the senior employee struggling to rebuild his life after a criminal past...

  • Duane — pardon me... Abdullah (actor-director Bill Duke), the angry Muslim who attracts constant ridicule from his less-serious coworkers ("Say, brother... is ribs pig?")...

  • Lindy (Antonio Fargas, mack daddy Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch), the flaming gay stereotype...

  • Floyd and Lloyd (Darrow Igus of the '80s sketch comedy show Fridays, and Dewayne Jessie, the unforgettable Otis Day in National Lampoon's Animal House), who imagine themselves the second coming of the Temptations — despite the fact that they are undermanned and undertalented...

  • Marsha (Melanie Mayron, who went on to a successful career as a director), the lonely cashier who's having an uninspiring affair with the car wash's married owner (character actor Sully Boyar)...

  • The cabbie (comedy legend George Carlin, added to the cast to give the film more name recognition), who wanders through the movie looking for the "tall, black, blonde hooker" (Lauren Jones) who skipped out on a fare...

  • Dueling pranksters Goody (Henry Kingi, founder of the Black Stuntmen's Association and one-time husband of Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner) and Chuco (Pepe Serna, sidekick Reno Nevada in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai)...

  • ...and of course, money-grubbing televangelist Daddy Rich (Pryor, who later admitted that he was coked out of his gourd while filming his only scene) and his backup singers, the Wilson Sisters (the real-life Pointer Sisters).
Who'd ever guess that this hip urban screenplay was written by the terminally Caucasian Joel Schumacher, who went on to direct such varied films as the classic horror spoof The Lost Boys, the biopic thriller Veronica Guerin, the Vietnam War drama Tigerland, and the screen version of The Phantom of the Opera — as well as such abysmal dreck as 8MM, Bad Company, Phone Booth, and the synapse-dulling Batman & Robin?

Brandy Fanning probably thinks that Dr. Trusty is a refugee from a film Schumacher had nothing to do with: Marathon Man.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Bad news

Cementing Sonoma County's reputation as the pedophile capital of the free world, here we go again.

A local radio news anchor and reporter has been arrested on charges that he engaged in "substantial sexual conduct" with a minor, beginning three years ago when the girl in question was only 12 years old.

Ron Kirk Kuhlmeyer, who broadcast for Santa Rosa's top-rated station KZST and sixth-ranked KJZY under the name Ron Kirk, resigned his position following his arrest.

Apparently, the police were notified of the alleged crimes by what's known in California legalese as a "mandated reporter" — a person, usually a health care provider or school teacher, who is required by law to report evidence of child sexual abuse.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: There must be something in our water supply that brings this garbage out in people.

I think I'll stick to the bottled kind.

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Go Bair, if you dare

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to Steve Ditko, the artist creator of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, who is celebrating his 80th birthday today. I spent the first 90 minutes of Mr. Ditko's birthday watching Spider-Man 3 on DVD. Unfortunately, it didn't get any better since I saw it in the theater a few months back. Pity.

Although I haven't seen the official numbers yet, I'm hearing through the comic art collectors' grapevine that last Sunday's Wonder Woman Day was a smashing success.

I'm told that the art auctions raked in somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 to support shelters for women fleeing domestic violence. I call that a good thing.

Due to limited resources, I was only able to make small bids on a couple of the offered items. To be honest, I looked over the selections, then bid on a few that I liked, but which I didn't think would draw a lot of attention. I also put in a modest bid on one artwork I was confident would sell for a much higher price.

Now here's the irony: I didn't win any of the auctions in which I thought my bid might actually be competitive. I did, however, score the one item I didn't think I stood any realistic chance of winning — this incredible pinup by Michael Bair.

Bair is best known in comic book circles as an inker, especially in partnership with penciler Rags Morales on such high-profile projects as DC's Identity Crisis. Like most of the best inkers, however, Mike's a talented artist in general, as his work here demonstrates. His depiction of Diana captures the sense of quiet power — that "still waters run deep" quality — that too many artists miss while trying to make her look like a Penthouse centerfold. Bair's Wonder Woman is unquestionably beautiful, but also strong, resolute, and ever so slightly perturbed — exactly the way I envision the character.

I first met Mike a few years ago at one of the local comics conventions (I can't recall whether it was a WonderCon or a Super-Con). We were introduced by his good friend and frequent collaborator, the artist known as Buzz. I saw Bair and Buzz most recently at Super-Con in June, when they both participated in a panel featuring several of the greatest inkers in comics history.

That's Bair in the white shirt at far left, and Buzz standing in the green shirt. Also pictured, to Bair's left: Bill Morrison, Tony DeZuniga, Danny Bulanadi, Frank Cho, and Ernie Chan. (Alex Niño was seated on Cho's left, but you can't see him in this shot.)

Since that first encounter, I've drooled over Mike's pages at every opportunity. One of these days, I'd love to have him ink my Rags Morales Common Elements commission, featuring Lady Blackhawk and the Falcon.

Wouldn't that look awesome finished in Michael Bair inks? You know it would. A couple of other inkers have requested this assignment, but in recognition of his unparalleled synergy with Rags, I'm holding out for Bair. Mike rarely takes on commission projects... but I can dream, can't I?

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

What channel is the ball game on?

Astounding news: The San Francisco Giants have changed flagship television stations.

The Giants' games have been broadcast locally on KTVU Channel 2 (which, ironically, is located in Oakland, a mere frog's leap from McAfee Coliseum, where the Athletics play) since the team arrived in the Bay Area in 1958. For the next three years, at least, the Giants will be seen on KNTV Channel 11 (or Channel 3, for those of us with Comcast cable), the San Jose-based NBC affiliate.

This move is especially puzzling to me, in that KTVU is one of the Giants' minority ownership partners. Apparently, though, the FOX affiliate grew weary of trying to shoehorn 20 or 30 baseball games around its heavyweight primetime programming, including such hits as American Idol, House, and 24.

Most of the Giants' televised games run on FOX Sports Bay Area anyway, but still, it's a shock.

Lucky for us fans, the Giants' crackerjack broadcasting unit, led by Jon "The Big Kahuna" Miller and the ever-popular duo of Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow remains intact. (The announcers work for the team, not the TV or radio stations which broadcast the games.)

Speaking of Jon, Kuip, and Kruk, all three are among the eligible nominees for the Ford C. Frick Award, the honor bestowed upon one broadcaster each year by the Baseball Hall of Fame. Longtime Giants radio voice Hank Greenwald is also on the list. Fan voting begins today, and you're allowed to vote for three nominees each day. (I already threw Jon, Hank, and Kuip a vote each.)

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In celebration of Cleavage

Just to prove that the need for breast cancer awareness doesn't stop at the end of October (which was National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in case you were asleep at the keyboard for the past 31 days), let's give an SSTOL Hero of the Day shout-out to the fine folks at Cleavage Creek Cellars, based right here in eternally beautiful northern California Wine Country.

Cleavage Creek was recently purchased by local entrepreneur Budge Brown, whose wife of 48 years, Arlene Brown, passed away two years ago after a lengthy battle with breast cancer. Budge has pledged to contribute ten percent of Cleavage Creek's gross revenues -- and yes, that's gross receipts, not net profits -- to breast cancer research.

As a clever marketing move, the label of every bottle of Cleavage Creek wine features an eye-catching snapshot of one of seven attractive models. Nothing new there, right? Wrong. Here's the twist: Each of the "Ladies of Cleavage Creek" is a breast cancer survivor.

You can read each model's personal story in detail at the Cleavage Creek Cellars Web site.

Cleavage Creek's eight 2008 releases range in price from $22 to $60 per bottle, and can be advance-purchased from Cleavage Creek. Since I don't drink wine, I can't comment on the quality of the product. (If you partake, please don't drive.)

From what I've heard and read about Budge Brown, I'm confident that every bottle is being made with love.

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