Thursday, January 31, 2008

Just call me Uncle Silverback

It's January 31, and you know what that means...

It's National Gorilla Suit Day.

Don't make the same mistake I made last year on this auspicious occasion. I was shopping for necessities in our local Wal-Mart (what can I say... I'm cheap) when I happened to pass a certain simian rifling through the discount DVD bin.

"Pardon me, ma'am," I said, "but that's an exceptionally fine gorilla suit you've donned for National Gorilla Suit Day."

"I'm not wearing a gorilla suit," growled the Wal-Mart denizen, clutching NASCAR's Greatest Laps, Volume 27 in one hairy mitt and a three-disc Chuck Norris retrospective in the other.

Color me embarrassed.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Religious dead pool update

It's an unhealthy week to be the leader of a major religion.

Both Archbishop Christodoulos, the head of the Greek Orthodox church, and Gordon Hinckley, the president of the Latter-Day Saints, died within the past two days.

If you see Pope Benedict and the Dalai Lama checking each other's pulses, you'll understand why.

No one wants to be the third leg of the trifecta.

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Don't worry. Pete Happy.

Pedro Feliz, the San Francisco Giants' starting third baseman for the past four seasons, has signed a two-year free agent contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Oh, well.

Reportedly, Pedro — nicknamed "Pete Happy" by Spanish-literate Giants fans — leaves the Bay Area a mite miffed that the G-Men didn't pursue his re-signing with greater alacrity.

Here's the deal, Pedro: Take a pitch once in a while.

Although Feliz matured into a nifty fielder at third base, and displayed not-infrequent flashes of power at the plate — he hit 20 or more home runs in each of the past four seasons — he never developed a shred of discipline as a hitter.

In the last four campaigns, Pedro posted batting averages of .276, .250, .244, and .253 — mediocre numbers at best. Even more telling, his on-base percentages over that period were .305, .295, .281, and .290, which tells you Feliz rarely gets on base without getting a hit. The word "walk" simply isn't in the guy's vocabulary. Last season, Pedro walked just 29 times in 557 official at-bats. You could walk 29 times a season just standing in the batter's box with your stick on your shoulder.

The Giants — and Giants fans — will miss Pedro's defense at the hot corner and his 80 or so RBI per year. They won't miss watching him ground out on bad pitches at which he never should have swung in the first place, thereby costing the team innumerable scoring opportunities.

Vaya con Dios, Pete Happy.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Yes, I SAG, and I'm not ashamed

It would have been criminal for pop culture vultures not to watch the Screen Actors Guild Awards last night, if only because it may represent our only taste of Hollywood glitz all spring.

The SAGs received a special dispensation from the striking Writers Guild of America, eliminating picketing that would have prevented WGA-sympathetic actors (pretty much everyone in SAG) from attending, and allowing WGA members to write for the awards show without reprisal. The lack of such a waiver resulted in the cancellation of the Golden Globe ceremony earlier this month, and continues to threaten the Academy Awards.

As entertainment, the SAG Awards (called "Actors," despite the potential for ribald humor were they to be nicknamed "Saggies") usually fall somewhere between the Golden Globes and the Oscars. The SAGs lack the liquor-lubricated club atmosphere of the Globes, while being slightly less self-important and pompous than the Academy Awards. Because all of the SAG recipients are actors — no writing, directing, or technical awards here — most of the presenters and awardees are familiar faces, thus lessening the tedium somewhat. (I'm glad all of the anonymous behind-the-scenes folks get their just due at Oscar time, but I don't especially care to watch them get it.)

The SAG show always begins with several stars facing the camera and delivering brief and (supposedly) humorous summations of their careers, ending with the tagline, "I'm [STATE YOUR NAME], and I'm an actor." Some of the better riffs on this theme came this year from Sally Field ("I was in my first play when I was 12..."), Kyle MacLachlan ("I've ridden giant sandworms and tracked down Laura Palmer's killer..."), and the former Mrs. John Stamos ("I spent three films painted blue... I'm Rebecca Romijn, and I'm a model turned actor"). One of these years, I'd love to see them get a more refreshingly honest admission: "I'm Ben Affleck, and I'm stealing money pretending to be an actor."

None of the results were surprises. The cast of The Sopranos, taking their final collective bow, swept most of the TV honors. Oscar favorites Daniel Day-Lewis, Julie Christie, Javier Bardem, and Ruby Dee snagged the major film nods.

The one puzzle for me was the awarding of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Charles Durning. I mean, yes, the man has been around forever, and he's appeared in roughly half a million films and TV shows over his lengthy career. But was Durning really the most worthy possible recipient? Anyone at SAG ever heard of Nicholson, Streep, DeNiro, or Pacino? Then again, considering Durning's obviously frail condition last evening, maybe those other folks aren't close enough to death's door yet.

Speaking of death, it was nice to see that the show's producers managed to shoehorn the recently departed Heath Ledger into the annual "Everyone Who Died Since Last Year's Show" tribute montage. The Academy Awards has occasionally drawn criticism when a celebrity has passed away within a few days of the program, and the Oscar producers haven't altered the already completed memoriam, forcing the fans of the newly departed to wait an entire year to see their favorite memorialized.

For a year in which awards shows may be slim pickings, I was taken aback to see that more of the stars didn't bust out their most exciting evening wear for the SAGs. Instead, this proved to be a fairly conservative and sedate year for red carpet fashions. Viggo Mortensen outflashed most of the men in his black-with-red-pinstripes tuxedo, which, combined with his scruffy beard, gave him the air of a dissolute English pimp:

On the distaff side, Sandra Oh's strapless parachute affair, with its humongous magenta bow across the chest, probably drew the most quizzical stares:

Now let's see whether the WGA strike will resolve in time for the 80th Oscar show.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Bombs away, dream babies

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of John Stewart, the singer-songwriter who passed away last Saturday at the age of 68.

Stewart was most familiar to music aficionados as a member of the seminal folk group, the Kingston Trio, with whom he performed in the early to middle 1960s, and as the composer of the pop standard "Daydream Believer," a hit for both The Monkees and Canadian songstress Anne Murray.

For me, though, the quintessential John Stewart recording was his 1979 solo album, Bombs Away Dream Babies, with its Top Ten single, "Gold." ("Midnight Wind," from the same album, was a pretty decent tune, also.) The album features stellar backing vocals by Stevie Nicks, and guitars by her Fleetwood Mac (and one-time real-life) mate, Lindsey Buckingham.

As a college radio DJ in the early '80s, I gave that platter frequent enough airplay that Stewart's label should have slipped me payola. (First Dan Fogelberg, now John Stewart — I am burning through my street cred at a horrifying rate.) I was mildly surprised to learn from his obits that Stewart lived just down the freeway from me, in Marin County, for the last several years of his life.

Bombs Away Dream Babies may very well be one of the five or six coolest album titles ever. So cool, in fact, I swiped it for this next installment in my Common Elements comic art series.

Artist Andy Smith, who contributed some sensational pencils to a Red Sonja/Claw the Unconquered crossover miniseries a while back, brings together two of comics' greatest "dream babies." That's the improbably monikered Horatio Hellpop — better known as the cosmic superhero Nexus — at left. His fetching companion is Nura Nal, the precognitive heroine whose Legion of Super-Heroes code name is Dream Girl.

Like the rest of her Legion teammates, Dream Girl has been a fixture in comics since the early 1960s. Although she's one of the least imposing Legionnaires — to be honest, the ability to see the future in dreams isn't exactly the most scintillating superpower — she's retained her position as a mainstay of the popular squad for more than four decades. And finally, after years of snore-inducing, solid white costumes, she's finally obtained a visually interesting uniform — the cloud-themed ensemble Andy Smith depicts in his drawing above.

The creation of writer Mike Baron and artist Steve "The Dude" Rude, Nexus is a young man living in the far-flung future who receives amazing superpowers in exchange for bringing the galaxy's mass murderers to justice. Horatio experiences painful nightmares about his intended targets' crimes that only subside when the evildoers are executed by the powers of Nexus. It sounds a lot darker than it actually plays — Baron and Rude infuse the material with a propulsive sense of fun and wonder, and never take themselves (or their hero) too seriously.

One of comics' most recognizable stylists, Steve Rude has become something of a legend in the industry with his dramatic line and clutter-free design sense. That combination is evident in this commission Rude created for me a couple of years ago, pitting Mary Marvel against an onslaught of guided missiles. Bombs away, Mary!

Rude's work is heavily influenced by such artists as Jack Kirby, and especially by Alex Toth, to whose Space Ghost character Nexus bears some (not entirely unintentional) resemblance — as you can see in this Common Elements drawing by Scott Rosema, in which Space Ghost appears alongside the Western hero Ghost Rider.

Nexus, incidentally, is that extreme rarity in comics — an independently distributed, creator-owned superhero comic that's both well-reviewed and reasonably successful. Nexus's adventures first began appearing in the early 1980s, ran more or less regularly for a decade (with an occasional shift in publishers), then resurfaced periodically throughout the '90s. Baron and Rude relaunched the series last year after a lengthy hiatus. They also just reissued Nexus's origin story — a great way to introduce new readers to this terrific character.

And that, dream babies, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Playing catch-up

I apologize for the paucity of posts this week. What with KJ's return from her lengthy hospital stay, plus a flood of business-related projects, blogging time has been nigh onto nonexistent.

But fear not, friend reader. Your Uncle Swan has been taking faithful note of the happenings of these past days, and plans to deliver his customary pithy commentary on these goings-on over the weekend. So be sure to drop around.

In the meantime, Grasshopper, be patient.

While you're waiting for maximum bloggage...

Starbucks' special of the month is a delightful Guatemalan coffee called Casi Cielo. It's a little bit citrus, a little bit chocolate, and a veritable cornucopia of coffee flavor. I'm quaffing a cup even as I type, and man, is it ever yummy.

I highly recommend that you bop down to the House of the Green Mermaid — you know it's never more than two minutes away — and grab a pound of this rich caffeinated treat. Uncle Swan gives this one five big tailfeathers out of a possible five. (And no, I don't work for Starbucks. I just dig great coffee.)

Remember: The Swan loves you.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I know how to quit you, Heath Ledger

KM and I were driving KJ home from her latest hospital stint when we heard the stunning news about the death of Heath Ledger.

As sorry as I am to admit it, my first reaction when I heard the radio headline was, "I'll bet it had something to do with drugs." And indeed, the initial report by the New York Times and other media outlets indicates exactly that. A shame, a pity, and a tragic waste.

Although it was probably his least demanding role, my favorite Ledger performance was his turn as the youthful jousting wannabe in A Knight's Tale, a picture that a lot of folks disliked, but that I thoroughly enjoyed through repeated viewings. It was in that film that Ledger's natural boyish charisma really shone. I was not as impressed as some others were with his more dramatically challenging work — I found his much-acclaimed clenched-jawed acting in Brokeback Mountain, for example, excessively mannered and affected, to the point of weirdness.

When Heath was cast as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's upcoming Batman Begins sequel, The Dark Knight, I couldn't imagine for the life of me how that was going to work. Ledger seemed far too lightweight for a role with that much darkness and venom in it. The trailers, however, won me over, and I was looking forward to seeing the full impact of Ledger's portrayal. I still am, though the experience will doubtless be bittersweet now.

Another successful young talent devoured by the demons of fame and fortune, or so it appears.

And that's no joke.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Happy anniversary, baby

As Pogo might have put it: "Comic Art Friday done come on Saturday this week!"

Sorry about that. As those of you who follow my Twitter log may have noticed, KJ went back into the hospital on Thursday. Don't panic: She'll be fine. She had a buildup of infection following her recent gall bladder removal, so they're draining the gunk (I love using that medical terminology) and pumping her with antibiotics to kill the nasty microbes. She'll probably come home on Tuesday if all goes well.

Unfortunately for her, this little setback means she's spending our 23rd wedding anniversary — which happens to be today — slurping clear liquids in a hospital bed, rather than dining sumptuously on haute cuisine at one of our outstanding local restaurants.

Still, we can celebrate the occasion, with some couples-focused comic art.

Batman and Catwoman — pencils by Al Rio, inks by Geof Isherwood:

Dynamo and Iron Maiden — pencils by Geof Isherwood:

Green Lantern John Stewart and Hawkgirl — pencils and inks by Wilson "Wunan" Tortosa:

Superman and Wonder Woman — pencils by the late, great Mike Wieringo, inks by Richard Case:

Spider-Man and Mary Jane — pencils by Al Rio, inks by Bob Almond:

Happy anniversary, KJ, and thanks for putting up with me for all these years. Get well soon, please.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Still the dream

But for an assassin's bullet, and barring further untoward incident, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 79 today.

From Dr. King's speech at the Great March on Detroit, June 23, 1963:
We've been pushed around so long; we've been the victims of lynching mobs so long; we've been the victims of economic injustice so long — still the last hired and the first fired all over this nation. And I know the temptation.

I can understand from a psychological point of view why some caught up in the clutches of the injustices surrounding them almost respond with bitterness, and come to the conclusion that the problem can't be solved within, and they talk about getting away from it in terms of racial separation. But even though I can understand it psychologically, I must say to you this afternoon that this isn't the way.

Black supremacy is as dangerous as white supremacy. No, I hope you will allow me to say to you this afternoon that God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men. God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race.

And I believe that with this philosophy and this determined struggle, we will be able to go on in the days ahead and transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
Preach on, brother Martin. Preach on.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Praise Bozo, and pass the Pepto-Bismol

Ladies and gentlemen, please doff your caps and raise your forks.

Eddie "Bozo" Miller has died.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Bozo the Clown died? Well, yes and no. The first man to wear the famous Bozo makeup and attire — cartoonist, comedian, and voice actor Pinto Colvig, best remembered as the voice of Walt Disney's Goofy and of Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — died in 1967. The most famous Bozos — NBC weatherman Willard Scott and entrepreneur Larry Harmon, who owns the Bozo trademark — are both very much alive at this writing.

But I digress.

Eddie "Bozo" Miller was not a clown — at least, not in the traditional sense. Instead, Bozo Miller — no relation to the greasepainted TV icon — was the first of the great modern trenchermen.

That means Bozo could eat.

A lot.

Decades before competitive food-guzzling devolved into Saturday afternoon ESPN fare, and decades before skinny Japanese guys made themselves household names by pounding endless streams of frankfurters and raw oysters down their gullets, Bozo Miller was the undisputed ruler of the independent kingdom of Gastronomy.

Miller first cracked into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1963, when he devoured 27 two-pound roast chickens in a single sitting at a Trader Vic's restaurant in the East Bay. For more than half a century, Bozo dazzled his friends with displays of prodigious consumption. The Guinness book reported that he was undefeated in eating contests between 1931 and 1981.

In his prime, Bozo packed away 25,000 calories a day. He once ate 30 pounds of elk meat loaf — I know, it turned my stomach just typing it — and on another occasion, 324 ravioli. Miller once chowed down 63 Dutch apple pies in an hour. My neighborhood supermarket doesn't even sell 63 Dutch apple pies in a week. Maybe a month.

Not a man to limit himself to a single aspect of conspicuous consuming, Bozo could drink, too. He regularly swilled a dozen martinis before lunchtime. He claimed to have drunk a lion — yes, an honest-to-Simba lion — under the table once. The lion didn't dispute the claim.

When Bozo wasn't eating — and I'm uncertain exactly when that might have been — he was a fixture at Bay Area racetracks. I would not be at all surprised to learn that horses with Bozo's money riding on them usually ran a step or two faster, for fear that Bozo would eat them if they lost. For all I know, he may have.

And here's the kicker: Brian Maxwell, marathon runner and PowerBar inventor, died at age 51; fitness guru Jim Fixx, at 52; health food promoter Euell Gibbons, at 64; low-carb diet doctor Robert Atkins, at 72.

Bozo Miller — the self-proclaimed World Champion of Gourmand Gastronomics — munched, gulped, and scarfed his way to the ripe old age of 89.

Chew on that, why don't you?

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Amazing Spider-Man: No more!

One of the most heart-rending events in my 40-plus years as a comic book reader occurred this week...

I dropped my once-favorite comic, The Amazing Spider-Man, from my standing order at my local comic book shop.

If you're at all interested in comics, you've probably heard about One More Day, the just-concluded storyline in which Peter Parker, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, makes a deal with the demonic Mephisto to save the life of Peter's elderly Aunt May. The price of Aunt May's survival: The erasure from existence of Peter's marriage to his beloved Mary Jane.

What galled me about this development was not so much the idea that Peter and Mary Jane would no longer be married. I was reading Spider-Man comics for 20 years before Pete and MJ tied the knot in a 1987 special issue. Although their marriage has influenced Marvel Comics' mainstream continuity for two decades, Pete and MJ have never been married in every Spider-Man series that Marvel publishes. Spidey is young and single in the alternate-universe Ultimate Spider-Man, in the kid-friendly Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man, and in the romance comic Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane. And of course, Pete and MJ aren't married in the blockbuster Spider-Man motion picture series.

So it's not as though being a married twenty-something is necessarily essential to the character.

What is essential, however, is Spider-Man's credo: "With great power comes great responsibility." Peter Parker became Spider-Man because his failure to stop a robbery cost his Uncle Ben his life. The core of the character has always been about making tough choices, and accepting the consequences.

In short: Spider-Man does not solve his problems by making deals with the devil. At least, the Spider-Man whose adventures I've followed since 1966 does not.

So I'm no longer buying The Amazing Spider-Man. I'll get my Spidey fix in other ways. I own the DVD archive of the series from its inception through mid-2006, so I have hundreds of ASM issues to read and reread. And I'll continue to enjoy The Amazing Spider-Girl, a wonderfully old-school series — written by Tom DeFalco and illustrated by Ron Frenz and Sal Buscema — in which Peter and MJ's teenage daughter May has taken up the superhero mantle of her now-retired father.

But I won't give Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada another dime for the series he destroyed.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bowman the Showman's last show

I was startled out of my rhinovirus-induced stupor just now by the news that former figure skating champion Christopher Bowman died today in Los Angeles of an apparent drug overdose.

Bowman — nicknamed "Bowman the Showman" for his aggressive, flashy skating style — won the U.S. men's title twice (1989 and 1992, with second-place finishes in '87 and '91). He represented the United States on two Olympic teams, albeit with disappointing results (a seventh-place finish in Calgary in 1988, and a fourth in Albertville, France, in 1992). He scored a silver medal at the World Figure Skating Championships in 1988, and a bronze the following year.

Prior to his athletic fame, Bowman was a child actor, familiar to TV viewers from dozens of commercials, plus a recurring role in the series Little House on the Prairie. But like many child stars, he encountered problems with drugs — he later acknowledged having a serious cocaine habit during his competitive years — and the law. Bowman was arrested in 2004 on charges of carrying a gun while intoxicated.

He was poised to make a return to acting this year, costarring in the new sports film Down and Distance alongside Gary Busey, Lil' Romeo, and Master P.

Bowman the Showman was 40 years old.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Dan's the Jeopardy! man

Congratulations to Dan Pawson, whose streak as reigning Jeopardy! champion ended tonight after nine victories.

Dan's run marks the third-longest winning skein in non-tournament Jeopardy! play, after the phenomenal Ken Jennings (74 wins) and David Madden (19 wins). (Long-time viewers will recall that until a few seasons ago, returning champions — including yours truly — were retired after their fifth victories.)

Dan's prize total of $171,601 will come in extremely handy, given that he and his wife are expecting a new baby, quite literally any day now.

Way to go, Dan!

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Goose gets loose

Congratulations to Rich "Goose" Gossage on becoming only the fifth relief pitcher to gain election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As I wrote in this space when the Hall of Fame ballots were distributed last November, Gossage certainly deserved to be voted in before this, his ninth year of eligibility. As I also noted, this year offered Gossage his best opportunity, as none of the 11 new names on the ballot would garner much attention. Of the fresh faces, only Tim Raines — a very good, but not great, player — logged enough votes to remain on the ballot next go-around.

I'm disappointed that Jim Rice, the American League's best all-around player for more than a decade, was denied election for the 14th time. On the positive side, Rice received considerably more votes this time than he ever has before, so there's a chance that he'll make it over the hump next year — his final shot at the ballot box.

With all of the anti-steroid furor of recent months, it should surprise no one that Mark McGwire fell far short of election for the second straight year. In fact, McGwire notched exactly the same number of votes he got last year: 128 (a total of 407 was needed in this year's balloting). I maintain that, steroids or no steroids, McGwire is not a Hall of Fame player in my estimation. An decent-fielding first baseman with a mediocre career batting average (.263), Big Mac wouldn't even be considered in the Hall of Fame conversation were it not for his now-suspect home run numbers.

The biggest addition to next year's eligibility list: Record-setting base stealer and 1990 American League Most Valuable Player Rickey Henderson. (Remind me in November to tell you my funny Rickey Henderson story.)

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Monday, January 07, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: American Gladiators

Last night, I caught the much-anticipated (around my desk, at least) premiere of NBC's newly revived American Gladiators.

For those of you who slept through the 1990s, the original American Gladiators (1989-1996) was a syndicated competition-reality series in which average men and women (albeit average men and women in better-than-average physical condition) pitted themselves in a variety of events against a team of colorfully nicknamed "gladiators." The male and female contestants who racked up the most points each week moved on to the next round of competition later in the season. Ultimately, the show crowned victorious champions in the final episode each season.

The 2008 version of American Gladiators — one of a spate of "unscripted" shows spawned by the Writers Guild of America strike — restores most of the elements that made the original a hit: contestants with interesting backstories (last night's competitors included a rehabilitative physician, a professional skateboarder, a New York City firefighter, and a female Iraq War veteran), events that make for rousing viewing (several of which are upgrades of staples from the old series), and of course, an all-new crew of Gladiators.

As in the previous version of the show, the Gladiators bear catchy one-word monikers (i.e., Crush, Justice, Venom). At least a couple of the names are nostalgic throwbacks (I recall a Siren and a Titan from the old days — in fact, the original Siren was played by a deaf athlete named Shelley Beattie), even though all of the personnel are new. In typical 21st-century fashion, the 2008 Gladiators tend to be bigger (all of the male Gladiators are 6'2" or taller, and I'm thinking that several members of the team — both men and women — would be hard-pressed to pass a test for anabolic steroids) and louder (Wolf and Toa, in particular, will soon wear out the welcome of their lycanthropic howls and Maori war chants, respectively) than their predecessors.

And there are at least a couple of semi-familiar faces in the bunch: Mike O'Hearn, a championship bodybuilder (a four-time Mr. Universe) and well-known male model (you'll see his muscular likeness on the covers of dozens of romance novels), plays Titan; Gina Carano, a martial artist (and daughter of former NFL quarterback Glenn Carano) who appeared as one of the trainers on Oxygen's women-boxing show Fight Girls, plays Crush.

I was pleased to see that the gameplay is as exciting as ever. Most of the old games have been given a fresh twist (Joust, in which a contestant and Gladiator attempt to knock one another off tiny pedestals with pugil sticks, is now played above a pool of water), and the new games are intriguing. I especially like Earthquake, in which the competitor and Gladiator grapple on a swinging Plexiglas platform high above the arena floor (and yet another pool of water). The end game, a torturous obstacle course called the Eliminator, has been ratcheted up to an extreme level that leaves the contestants nearly comatose from exhaustion by the time they crash through the foam-brick wall that marks the finish line.

My main problem with the revival is that the episodes feel padded, mostly with useless yammering by commentators Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali. (What's the matter, NBC? Did you lose Mike Adamle's phone number since the last Olympics?) I'm certain that the original series managed to cram more events into each show than the four we're getting here. Memo to NBC: Less yak, more smack.

The new show also seems to be trying too hard to make "personalities" out of both the competitors and the Gladiators — especially the aforementioned Wolf and Toa, and the Valkyrie-themed female Gladiator who's saddled with the amusing nickname Hellga. Back in the day, fan favorites — male Gladiators Gemini (former NFL player Michael Horton), Laser (stuntman Jim Starr, who gained additional notoriety when it was revealed that he was married to porn star Candie Evans) and Nitro (who eventually moved into the AG commentator's chair under his real name, Dan Clark), and female Gladiators Zap (bodybuilder Raye Hollitt, who enjoyed a modest mainstream acting career) and Lace (actress Marisa Paré, who parlayed her Gladiator fame into a Playboy pictorial) — just naturally evolved as the seasons progressed.

Is American Gladiators high art? Of course not. Is it schlock TV? Well, sure. Is it a half-step removed from professional wrestling? In style and tone, perhaps, although the competition is real (as are the contestants) and the outcomes are not — so far as I'm aware — scripted.

But is it entertaining enough to keep me tuning in on Monday nights, at least until something better comes along? You bet.

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What's Up With That? #57: Chester the Molester

Meet Beth Ann Chester, a physical education teacher at Moon Area High School near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Actually, Beth Ann is now a former physical education teacher, since her arrest on a slew of charges relating to her sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old male student.

Beth Ann got busted sending inappropriate text messages and nude photos of herself to her underage paramour's cell phone, thus ending what I'm certain was a promising career in adolescent development.

According to at least one report, Ms. Chester — who is 26 years of age, and married — confessed to engaging in sexual congress with the boy in her car in the school parking lot. I suppose the local Motel 6 was full.

Perhaps Beth Ann was merely confused as to the academic boundaries of "physical education."

That, or she missed that whole Mary Kay Letourneau business.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Funky phantoms

Before we delve into this week's Comic Art Friday, I have to get one thing off my chest...

Take this, Joe Quesada.

I don't feel entirely better now, but that helped.

Moving on...

Although he's probably more familiar to comics readers from his work on The Flash and Legion of Super-Heroes, Greg LaRocque is one of the many artists who've been called upon to illustrate the adventures of Spider-Man during the Wall-Crawler's 45-year career. Greg was the inaugural penciler of the '80s-'90s series Web of Spider-Man, and also drew a year's worth of Marvel Team-Up, in which Spidey partnered with a different Marvel superhero each month.

When I heard that Greg was actively seeking commission projects, I knew I had to have him add a new page to my Common Elements gallery. (For the benefit of any first-timers present: Common Elements is my ongoing series of commissioned artworks, in which each drawing features two or more otherwise unrelated superheroes who share some characteristic in common.) Here's Greg's take on two classic characters: Phantom Lady and the Phantom Stranger.

Interestingly enough, when I approached him, Greg came up with several Common Elements-style pairings of his own, one of which included Phantom Lady. That makes perfect sense — as you can see, his style fits her like a glove. (I know, I know: She doesn't wear gloves. Don't interrupt me when I'm on a roll.) And I like Greg's visual device of making the mysterious Phantom Stranger appear out of Phantom Lady's "black light" beam.

As for Phantom Lady herself, she holds an intriguing place in comics history. She was one of the earliest female superheroes, making her debut in the August 1941 issue of Police Comics. Her adventures were published by Everett "Busy" Arnold's Quality Comics, which outsourced most of its early content from the art studio of Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit) and S.M. "Jerry" Iger. The Eisner & Iger studio produced numerous successful series for Quality, including Blackhawk, The Ray, and most memorably, Plastic Man.

By the late '40s, the vast majority of superhero comics had gone the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon. This included most of the Quality lineup. The Iger studio (Eisner and The Spirit had departed by then) shifted Phantom Lady over to another publisher, Fox Features. The Fox version of the character was drawn by the supremely talented Matt Baker, a leading pioneer of what came to be known as "good girl" art (or "headlights comics").

Baker's cover drawing from Phantom Lady #17, depicting the impressively endowed heroine bound to a pole with rope, became the star exhibit in Dr. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, a scathing indictment of comics' supposed deleterious effects on the psychological health of American youth. Wertham's book triggered Senator Estes Kefauver's infamous inquiry into the comics industry, which in turn led to widespread (albeit industry-sanctioned) censorship in the form of the Comics Code Authority.

As for the Phantom Stranger, he was the focal point of one of mainstream comics' first furtive forays into the realm of the supernatural under the Comics Code. Introduced in 1952 but essentially abandoned after a brief six-issue run, DC Comics resurrected the Stranger (no pun intended) in 1969, just as DC and Marvel were beginning to flirt with the reintroduction of the horror themes that had twisted Wertham's and Kefauver's underpants more than a decade earlier. The Stranger's second series, which ran until 1976, helped pave the way for the onrush of supernatural titles in the '70s, everything from Marvel's Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night to DC's Weird War Tales and Weird Western Tales.

The Phantom Stranger remains unique among comics heroes in that his true identity has never been revealed, and his origin and powers (which are rivaled in the DC Universe only by those of the Spectre, who is supposed to be an agent of the Almighty Himself) have never been clearly defined. It's been speculated that the Stranger might be a fallen angel, the last survivor of a prior universe... even the legendary Wandering Jew.

Or, like the Sphinx in the film Mystery Men, he might just be very, very mysterious.

Not so mysterious, however, is the appeal of Greg LaRocque's art. That's evident from his lovely portrait of the Scarlet Witch, as embellished by inker Bob Almond.

As mentioned earlier, Mr. LaRocque is available (and highly recommended) for commissions. You can tell him your Uncle Swan sent you.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

What's On My Desk? 2008

KM and I just completed our annual post-New Year foray to our local shopping mall, to raid the calendar kiosk during its closeout 50%-off sale.

This year, my desk will be showcasing this calendar:

I haven't had a movie calendar on my desk in a few years, so this will be a pleasant change. In 2007, I reverted, after a hiatus of several years, to The Far Side, which released an authorized desk calendar for the first time in a while. The previous year, if I recall correctly, I used a sampler of "Stupidest Things Ever Said." (I was relieved to note, at year's end, that I had not been quoted.)

In case you're curious, the highlighted film for January 3, 2008 is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Memo to George W.: You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you.)

For completeness' sake, KM's new 2008 wall calendar features the cast of Heroes. Save the calendar, save the world.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

What were you doing New Year's Eve?

Happy New Year to every friend and associate of this fine blog. May 2008 bring you and your loved ones tremendous good, and none ill.

Whatever 2008 may deliver, we can be assured of one certainty: People will continue to behave in stupid ways. As proof of this assertion, we offer the following, all of which occurred within the final 24 hours of 2007:There's a brightness control on my computer monitor, but adjusting it doesn't make the people I read about on the Internet any brighter. I doubt that will change in 2008.

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