Friday, February 29, 2008

WonderCon: Where comics rule, and cash disappears

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to my loyal assistant Abby, who celebrated her seventh birthday yesterday.

Abby does not like it when the boss closes the office for two days to run off to some silly comic book convention thing, as he did last Friday and Saturday. So she's happy that he's back in his chair where he belongs, so that she can lie at his feet and snooze.

Speaking of that silly comic book convention thing...

WonderCon 2008 rocked.

San Francisco's Moscone Center overflowed with pop culture insanity last weekend, and your Uncle Swan splashed along with the colorful tide.

It was, I must say, quite an action-packed weekend:

I convinced a pair of Stormtroopers that I was not the droid they were looking for...

I persuaded Wonder Woman and Supergirl to pose for a photo by name-dropping my close personal friendship with Bob Almond, the King of Inking...

I avoided making the Incredible Hulk angry, because I wouldn't like him when he's angry...

I made a donation to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, battling evil censorship wherever it raises its ugly head...

...and I strolled past more fancy merchandising displays than one could shake an uru hammer at.

I attended several terrific panels. The highlight was Mark Evanier's panel debuting his new book about the life and art of Jack Kirby, Kirby: King of Comics. Mark, who broke into the comics business as Kirby's assistant in the late 1960s...

...led a discussion on the works of Jolly Jack, aided and abetted by such creative talents as Mike Royer, who was Kirby's primary inking collaborator for two decades, beginning in the early 1970s, and Darwyn Cooke, the writer/artist responsible for Justice League: The New Frontier, the film version of which debuted at WonderCon on Saturday night. (It's available now on DVD. You should run out to your local retailer as soon as you finish reading this, and buy a copy.)

Comic Relief, the big comics shop in Berkeley, managed to acquire the first 80 copies of Mark's hot-off-the-press book to sell at the convention. Both Mark and Mike Royer were kind enough to autograph my copy. (According to Mark's blog this morning, Amazon now has Kirby: King of Comics in stock. You should click over there as soon as you finish reading this, and order a copy.)

Mark also hosted an enjoyable one-on-one interview with longtime Marvel Comics artist Herb Trimpe, known for his work on The Incredible Hulk, G.I. Joe, Godzilla, and Shogun Warriors, among numerous other titles. Herb was also the first artist to draw Wolverine, later of the X-Men, in a published comic. If you had a mint-condition copy of Incredible Hulk #181 lying around, you could put your kids through college.

A few years back, I commissioned Herb to draw an entry in my Common Elements theme — a tussle between Doc Samson, a Hulk supporting character Herb co-created, and Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze. I took the piece to WonderCon with me, and Herb kindly posed for a photo with it. It was a treat to meet him and to thank him for it in person, after all this time.

Another entertaining panel featured a group of animation writers — Justice League story editor Dwayne McDuffie prominent among them — developing an outline for a hypothetical animation project using random suggestions from the audience. If you ever see an announcement about Howard the Duck vs. The Green Lantern Corps, you'll know that this panel is where the concept first germinated.

Of course you know that I didn't spend the entire weekend listening to industry stalwarts yakking. Artists' Alley beckoned, and its denizens busied themselves adding a slate of gorgeous new artworks to my collection. Let's check out the haul.

For the second consecutive WonderCon, I commissioned a new Common Elements artwork. This year, the challenge went to the legendary Tony DeZuniga, who agreed to bring together the swashbuckling Zorro and the Justice League's Vixen. I had neglected to bring a picture of Zorro — I mistakenly believed that Tony had drawn the character before — so Tony's charming wife Tina prowled the comics vendors until she found a old Gold Key Zorro comic for Tony to reference.

Here, Tony displays his completed creation.

Alex Niño, one of comics' most distinctive stylists, held court at the table next to Tony's. I took advantage of the opportunity to tell Alex that I'm probably one of maybe five people in the world who owns all twelve issues of Thriller, the fabled series from the '70s on which Alex followed Trevor Von Eeden as artist.

Alex responded with this striking drawing of Taarna, from the film Heavy Metal.

Although we always renew our acquaintance whenever we see each other at a con, it had been a while since I had commissioned a new work from the great Ernie Chan. I rectified this oversight, and Ernie delivered this terrific portrait of Doc Savage and his cousin and fellow adventurer, Pat Savage.

I never pass up a chance to have Ron Lim draw something for me. Ron seemed to enjoy creating this pinup of longtime Fantastic Four comrade-in-arms Thundra.

Last year at WonderCon, I struck gold by stumbling upon Phil Noto, who although not listed as a convention guest was setting up at a table. Could lightning strike twice in the same convention hall? Yes, indeed — once again, I lucked into a commission from the again-unannounced Mr. Noto. Here's Phil's Valkyrie as a work in progress...

...and as a finished product in the hands of the artist.

David Williams, who has contributed delightful art to Marvel's all-ages line in recent years, was the perfect choice to draw Mary Marvel. His Marilynesque take on Mary couldn't be more adorable.

I was elated last year when Aaron Lopresti took over the art chores on one of my favorite series, Ms. Marvel. Thus, when comics news sites reported recently that Aaron was leaving Marvel for DC, I was disappointed... until I learned that his first DC assignment will be as the regular penciler on Wonder Woman. This awesome Storm drawing will satisfy my Lopresti jones until Aaron's first issue of Wonder Woman hits the stands.

I had intended to commission a piece from Sidekick artist Chris Moreno. When I saw this amazing drawing of Ms. Marvel in Chris's portfolio, however, I couldn't imagine him drawing anything that I would enjoy more than this. So I bought it from him. Chris's use of negative space in this piece is stunning.

So that, friend reader, was WonderCon '08. Now you know where the money went.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Making waves in Malibu

The announcement apparently came a week ago, but somehow, I missed it:

Tom Asbury is returning to Pepperdine as head basketball coach next season, after a 14-year absence.

Asbury presided over one of Pep's best stretches during his previous tenure as head coach, from 1988 to 1994. During those six seasons, the Waves won three consecutive West Coast Conference championships, and made five postseason appearances — three in the NCAA tournament, and two in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). Before that, Asbury spent nine years on the Pepperdine bench as an assistant under the volatile Jim Harrick.

Asbury left Malibu in 1994 to take over the reigns at Kansas State, where he spent six seasons — three good, three less so. He left coaching for a few years before taking an assistant's job at Alabama, where he worked until last season.

When I was at Pep ('79-'81), Asbury was widely known as the secret of Harrick's success — an excellent recruiter, and a stable personality to balance Harrick's mercurial, fly-off-the-handle approach. If Asbury's got anything left in the tank, he could do a great deal to resurrect a program that has fallen into disarray since he left it. (Case in point: Vance Walberg, the head coach who started this season with Pepperdine, was ousted midway through the year amid allegations of player abuse reminiscent of Bob Knight.)

The Waves are currently 10-14 overall and 4-8 in the WCC, with three games left to play.

I hope Asbury pulls this off. I'd love to see the Blue and Orange back in the Big Dance some year soon.

Roll, Waves!

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Buckley stops here

Some of you — heck, perhaps all of you — will be flabbergasted to read this, but I'm going to say it anyway:

I'm going to miss William F. Buckley.

Were I going to populate a dinner table with the guests from throughout human history I believed would make the most fascinating conversation, Buckley would be near the top of the invitation list. The "godfather of American conservatism" was erudite, witty, disarmingly charming, and often hilarious. If you ever saw any of his Firing Line broadcasts — and I tuned in quite a few, over the program's 33 years on the air — you witnessed a master of the art of interlocution in action.

Buckley's gift for language was both compelling and astounding. Yes, he was perhaps overfond of his own repartee and Brobdingnagian vocabulary, but I have to confess that I learned a lot of interesting words and phrases from Buckley's talk shows and columns. The obvious relish with which Buckley wielded the tongue of Shakespeare is especially remarkable when one considers that it was his third language — he learned to speak Spanish and French in childhood, and began to study English only when he entered school at age seven.

As a political pundit, Buckley possessed the rarest of talents: the ability to engage in civil, even affectionate, discourse with people with whom he strongly disagreed. Although unquestionably opinionated, and not above using his rapier wit to belittle an opponent, Buckley managed to maintain positive relations with people at the opposite extremes of the philosophical spectrum from his own conservative-libertarian base. Many of his closest friends, such as liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, held views far removed from Buckley's. But he had that knack: even if you disagreed with him, you kind of liked the old goat. Grudgingly, perhaps, but still.

Buckley and I would not have found much common ground in a political or sociological debate. Even so, I appreciated his willingness to at least hear other sides of an issue, and to take occasional stands that set him at odds with those of like stripe, such as his often-stated position that the Bush administration's Iraq policy has been a complete failure.

Buckley also demonstrated that he could change his mind about things. Once an ardent defender of the racist, anti-Semitic John Birch Society during the 1950s, he repudiated the organization a decade later. Where Buckley once openly supported South African apartheid in the National Review, he later acknowledged that, had he been a black South African, he would have supported Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.

Did Buckley ever fully renounce his own personal racism and anti-Semitism? I don't know — I never met the man. Let's just say I probably wouldn't have wanted him to marry my daughter.

I do think that I'd have enjoyed sitting across a table from him, and kicking ideas around over coffee. We might not have concurred about much. I'd like to think, however, that we'd both have at least heard a few well-articulated opinions.

And more than a few fifty-dollar words.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What's In My Pocket? #5: Kershaw Needs Work

Knives are as challenging to purchase for a true knife fanatic as books are to buy for an avid reader. Even if you know the person well, tastes are hard to predict and interpret. Plus, how do you know what the individual already owns?

That said, KJ knocked a home run when she picked up this little honey for my Christmas stocking.

The Kershaw Model 1820 — better known as the Needs Work — has proven to be a handy member of my everyday carry knife rotation over the past two months. With its three-inch blade, the Needs Work is probably the smallest knife I carry on a regular basis. Its size makes it perfect, however, for occasions when I want my knife to be as unobtrusive as possible, or when I'm wearing trousers whose pocket structure renders a larger knife cumbersome.

True to its name, the Needs Work loves to... well... work. I'm not usually a huge fan of the Wharncliffe blade profile, but this Ken Onion-designed utility knife serves wonderfully well as a routine letter-opener, package cutter, and paper slicer. As an example, one of the art pieces I picked up at WonderCon last weekend (come back on Friday for a review of all the new goodies) was a couple of inches too long to fit my portfolio. The Needs Work trimmed it smoothly to exact specifications in nothing flat.

The Needs Work's blade is fashioned from Kershaw's tough Sandvik 13C26 stainless steel, in which I've become a firm believer thanks to previous purchases. The handle material is a grippy polymer that delivers secure feel in the hand. (It's actually a little too grippy for easy deployment from the pocket, but that's a minor complaint.) Ken Onion's patented SpeedSafe assisted opening action snaps the blade into place with lightning speed, and like every Kershaw I've ever handled, this sucker is wicked sharp.

The ergonomics of this little knife rate aces with me. Because of my thick-fingered, chunky hands, I often find a smaller knife uncomfortable to hold and difficult to manipulate. The Needs Work fits my paw like it was custom-molded. The design of the handle is such that I could cut cardboard all afternoon and not suffer a cramp.

KJ, who knows precious little about pocketknives, got an excellent recommendation on this one, thanks to the guy at the local knife shop where she bought it. Good call, dude! (And thank you, KJ!)

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, February 25, 2008

No viewers for old Oscar

I would like to tell you how enthusiastically I enjoyed last night's telecast of the 80th Academy Awards.

I would also like to tell you how closely I resemble Denzel Washington, and how my fiscal holdings almost exactly mirror those of Warren Buffett.

All of the above would be equally true.

Oscar really has turned into a snoozefest — tepid, tedious, and annoyingly time-wasting. You'd think that after 80 years, the Academy would have cooked up a formula that worked. But they haven't.

To be fair, one of the key problems with this year's show was out of the Academy's hands, as well as those of the producers of the Oscarcast. There was little, if any, suspense inherent in any of the major awards, largely because many of the films nominated weren't popular blockbusters with a built-in rooting interest, and quite a few of the actors up for the big prizes weren't household names in any households other than their own. I'll be honest, I had to hit Wikipedia and IMDB more than once to find out what other film projects a nominee had done. Embarrassing admission for a pop culture maniac such as myself, but we're all about the honesty here at SSTOL.

Jon Stewart's return as host didn't help much. In his own realm on The Daily Show, Stewart's a sharp, funny guy. But in his two stints as Oscar MC, he's seemed off his "A" game. As Chris Rock discovered a few years back, it's tough to strike that delicate balance between edgy and off-putting. Stewart appears to be taking the path of least resistance here, but that isn't really what people who enjoy his incisive brand of topical humor want to see or hear. He's certainly better than the terminally laid-back Steve Martin or the uncomfortably frenetic Ellen Degeneres, but not an awful lot better.

As I've noted in past years, I still believe that the best hosting Oscar has had in recent seasons was served up by Whoopi Goldberg in her four outings. Whoopi — who, to be frank, I prefer in small doses — exhibits all the right tools for award night success: a quick wit; a brilliant sense of timing; a willingness to push the envelope but sense enough not to push it too far; and best of all, her own personal Oscar cred as a two-time nominee and winner of one gold statue (Best Supporting Actress, 1990, Ghost). It's clear, though, that Whoopi has somehow landed on the Academy's blacklist (no pun intended) — when clips of former Oscarcast hosts appeared on last night's show, the Whoopster was mysteriously absent.

Anyway, I'd continue talking about the broadcast, but just thinking about it is hitting me like a double dose of Ambien. So let's just hope Little Gold Guy finds a little more action next year.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, February 22, 2008

I'm wandering to WonderCon

It's WonderCon time, boys and girls.

Thus, your ever-lovin' Uncle Swan is off for two fun-filled, action-packed days at San Francisco's Moscone Center, rubbing elbows with sweaty comics geeks from all over the West. We'll check out the scene, slap palms with a few old comrades, and with any luck, pick up a new artwork or two along the way.

And of course, we'll report back here next Comic Art Friday, to tell you all about it.

Meanwhile, to whet our comic art appetite, let's flash back to a few of the artistic highlights we've commissioned at WonderCons past.

From WonderCon 2005: Ron Lim rocks Captain America — may he rest in peace — and throws in the U.S. Agent for good measure. Comic Art Friday perennial Bob Almond later put the finishing touches on this one, in ink.

From WonderCon 2006: Alé Garza delivers a lovely yet powerful rendition of my favorite mutant, the weather wizardress known as Storm.

From WonderCon 2007: The delightful Paul Ryan creates an exciting splash page — literally and figuratively — featuring his heroine and mine, Wonder Woman.

What joys will WonderCon 2008 bring to our little collection of funnybook drawings? Drop around in seven days, and find out!

And that, fellow Con artists, is your Comic Art Friday.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 21, 2008

What's Up With That? #58: Monica du jour

Senator John McCain says:

"I did not have sexual relations with that woman... there an echo in here?"

Labels: , , ,

Monday, February 18, 2008

Pedals to the metal

Crank up the Queen: It's "Bicycle Race" time.

The Amgen Tour of California gets under way today. In fact, it's already under way, but I don't get up as early in the morning as professional cyclists do.

This event is of local interest for two reasons:

One, today's first stage of the race ends — and tomorrow's second stage begins — right here in my own backyard. Well, not literally in my backyard, but a mere stone's chuck to the north in Santa Rosa's Courthouse Square. The "no parking" signs were already out in full force throughout downtown when I was there yesterday morning.

Two, our hometown two-wheeling hero Levi Leipheimer is the Tour's defending champion. Levi, riding for Team Astana this year, is again favored to win the Tour. Levi — the current USA Cycling National Road Race Champion — will doubtless be hungry to repeat, especially since Astana has just been banned from competing in this year's Tour de France, due to doping allegations involving competitors who were members of the team before Levi signed on.

On the latter point, there's an online petition aimed at encouraging the Tour de France organizers to reconsider their decision and admit Levi and his Astana teammates to the Tour. I've already signed. I'm sure that Levi would appreciate your support as well, if you're so inclined.

We here at SSTOL wish Levi a swift, smooth ride in the Tour of California.

Sad to say, no fat-bottomed girls are competing.

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 15, 2008

R.I.P., Steve Gerber

Today's a sad Comic Art Friday...

Comic book creator Steve Gerber passed away earlier this week.

Gerber was one of the leading lights in Marvel Comics' "second generation" of writers, those who came along in the early '70s after Stan Lee had reduced his prodigious output. Gerber, in particular, quickly gained a reputation for an off-kilter, freewheeling style — punctuated by weird humor and oblique satire — that seemed especially well suited to some of Marvel's fringe characters.

It was while writing one of those fringe characters — the swamp monster called Man-Thing — that Gerber's unique voice found its ultimate avatar in an angry feathered creature named Howard the Duck.

Howard became Gerber's signature character, as well as the focal point of a long-running legal battle between the writer and the publishing company. While at Marvel, Gerber also co-created such memorable characters as Shanna the She-Devil, a jungle heroine, and Omega the Unknown, a mysterious superpowered alien who forms an unusual connection with a gifted Earth boy.

My favorite of Gerber's works was his two-year run on The Defenders, which I've mentioned previously in this space as one of my favorite comics of the '70s. Although several other talented writers preceded (Steve Englehart, Chris Claremont, Len Wein) and followed (David Anthony Kraft, Ed Hannigan, J.M. DeMatteis) Gerber on Defenders, the series really came into its own under his authorship in 1975-76.

In memory of Steve Gerber, let's look at a few artworks from my collection that feature members of the Defenders.

As "Marvel's greatest non-team," the Defenders usually brought together characters who weren't generally known as team players. Their founder and leader was sorcerer supreme Dr. Strange, master of the mystic arts. The good Doctor appears here by way of the potent pencil of artist Geof Isherwood.

The original triumvirate of Defenders partnered Dr. Strange with Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, and the gamma-irradiated green Goliath known as the Hulk. Bruce Banner's hulking alter ego locks horns with the mighty Thor in this artwork, penciled by Dan Jurgens and inked by Bob Almond.

One of the first expansions of the Defenders' non-roster added the sword-slinging superheroine Valkyrie, depicted here by penciler Michael Dooney and inker Bob Almond. As other early Defenders additions came and went (i.e., the Silver Surfer, the Black Knight, Hawkeye), the Valkyrie remained, becoming one of the team's most prominent members.

The group's next significant addition was Nighthawk, a sort of airborne Batman type. An established villain, Nighthawk switched sides from evil to good in order to help the Defenders defeat his former cronies, the Squadron Sinister. Nighthawk quickly became a popular Defender, ultimately becoming the team's de facto field general. Here, Nighthawk poses down with Kyle Rayner of the Green Lantern Corps, in a "Common Elements" spectacular by Kyle Hotz.

Steve Gerber continued to work periodically in comics after his '70s heyday. He also branched out into television animation, creating the popular series Thundarr the Barbarian and writing and story-editing such shows as Dungeons and Dragons, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. He remained a prominent advocate for creators' rights throughout his career.

If you're interested in learning far more about Gerber's life and impact on the comics industry than I could ever hope to share, you'll find an extensive list of links over at The Comics Reporter. Please take a moment and browse a few of the tributes — you'll be both astounded and moved.

At the time of his death from pulmonary fibrosis, Steve Gerber was 60. He was awaiting a lung transplant when he died.

He will, without question, be sincerely missed.

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 14, 2008

I'm Karen for you, Valentine

Happy Valentine's Day to everyone in SSTOL-land! May you live in romantic times.

All this hearts-and-flowers talk has me wondering, though...

Whatever happened to local girl Karen Valentine?

Born and raised just around the corner from here in Sebastopol — then nationally renowned for its apple orchards (now mostly gone, as progress would have it), and later as the one-time residence of cartoonist Charles Schulz — Karen Valentine leaped into TV prominence in 1969 on the seminal academic drama Room 222. As perky, neurotic student teacher (and eventually, full-fledged faculty member) Alice Johnson, Karen quickly became one of 222's focal points.

For those of you too callow to recall, Room 222 broke significant broadcast ground back in the day. The show, set in an inner-city Los Angeles high school, boasted one of network television's first thoroughly integrated casts, headlined by African American actors Lloyd Haynes and Denise Nicholas (who was briefly married to soul singer Bill Withers). The plotlines often dealt with topical issues, such as race relations and the Vietnam War.

But let's face it: It was Karen Valentine we tuned in to see.

After 222 ended in 1974, Karen headlined a short-lived sitcom entitled — not surprisingly — Karen. She also made frequent appearances throughout the '70s as a celebrity panelist on the popular game show Hollywood Squares, before launching a decade-long career as the heroine in a skein of maudlin made-for-TV movies.

Although her IMDB listing reflects sporadic acting credits in recent years, I don't believe I've actually seen Karen in anything in 15 years or more. Unlike the remarkably similar Sally Field, who pushed beyond her youthful roles in Gidget and The Flying Nun to become a respected, Oscar-winning film actress, Karen never quite made the on-camera jump from bubbly, fresh-faced girl to mature, sophisticated adult woman.

Too bad, really.

Wherever you are, Miss Johnson, I hope you're enjoying your Valentine's Day.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

You go, Uno!

Congratulations to Champion K-Run's Park Me In First — known to his pals as Uno — who last night became the first beagle to win Best in Show at the canine version of the Super Bowl, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Somewhere in puppy dog heaven, Snoopy is smiling.

Happy though I am for Uno and his owner ("Uno, owner. Owner, Uno."), I feel compelled to point out an ongoing injustice: No Pembroke Welsh Corgi has ever won Best in Show in the 132-year history of Westminster.

As the great Tony Bruno would say, it's an outrage.

Somewhere beneath my office chair, my assistant Abby is definitely not smiling.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The missing Linc

It's Lincoln's Birthday today!

Oh, what a joyous occasion!

Lincoln has always been a hero of mine. He hung tough in the face of adversity and violent opposition. He stood determined in his resolve to battle injustice and hatred. Charismatic, yet possessed with a dignified cool. A champion defender of the disenfranchised, and a staunch advocate for the rights of black Americans.

Plus, his monster Afro and aviator shades were wicked cool.


Oh, you meant this Lincoln...

...not this Lincoln.

Never mind, then. Carry on.


Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, February 11, 2008

My dinner with George (Lucas)

Okay, full disclosure...

I didn't actually have dinner with George Lucas.

Or lunch.

Or breakfast.

I've never even met George Lucas. (I did once ride the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland with Maclean Stevenson, but that's a story for another time.)

I did, however, spend last Saturday in the mammoth soundstage recording studio at Lucas's fabled Skywalker Ranch, tucked away in the hills of bucolic western Marin County. My chorus, Voices in Harmony — northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, just like it says on my official coffee mug — is enjoying the privilege of recording our debut CD (entitled Now and Then, and available for advance purchase, if you're so inclined) at Skywalker Sound.

Over the years, I've known a number of folks who worked at the Lucasfilm complex — none of whom are either space aliens or robots, so far as I can tell — so I was aware going in that the Skywalker Ranch experience would be nowhere near as visually amazing as the kajillion-award-winning film and recording output of the place might suggest. Just to quell a few rumors:
  • The security guard at the front gate does not wear a Stormtrooper's white armor. (I did, however, use my Jedi mental powers to persuade him that my van's passengers and I were not the droids he was looking for.)

  • The crosswalk signs do not read, "Caution: Wookiee Zone."

  • The soundstage does not resemble the Imperial Hall of Alderaan — from the exterior, it looks like a decrepit old winery — and, sad to tell, is not staffed by slave girls in gold metal bikinis. (Although it was Saturday, so the slave girls might have had the day off.)

  • Our audio engineer did not carry a lightsaber, or wear a rebreathing helmet.

  • The only Ewok in evidence was a diminutive, furry-faced fellow standing in our baritone section, and I'm pretty certain he came with us.
Prosaic accoutrement aside, our initial recording experience was still powerful and awe-inspiring. Anyone who loves the cinema couldn't help but "feel a stirring in the Force" while standing in the vast hall where so many memorable orchestral scores have been performed. Looking up at the studio's great movie screen, I could imagine our voices — like a Greek chorus of the Aristotelian period — providing dramatic background for some epic battle sequence between the defenders of truth and the purveyors of evil. (Or perhaps Spaceballs: The Musical.)

The last time I recorded with a chorus, we were 40 men crammed into a narrow bandbox of a joint tiled with carpet remnants. We were lucky to create two or three usable takes in a day's labor. On Saturday, the 85 of us — under the guiding hand of one of the world's most accomplished choral conductors — generated celestial sound that, I'm sure, had angels harmonizing along. We laid down half the tracks for a 16-song CD that would be an insane bargain at five times the cover price. (Hint, hint.)

As we departed the legendary confines of Skywalker Ranch at the end of an exhausting yet productive and enormously gratifying day — our voices weary, our lower extremities in agony, but with rapture in our hearts — I reflected upon the wonder of our communal experience. Making music with a group of talented and like-minded folks truly delivers an ineffable satisfaction to the inner being. I wish you all could have been part of it.

I wish Mr. Lucas could have been part of it, too, but I'm guessing that he was otherwise engaged. His organization is currently busy filming the third Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel. (I think it's called Indiana Jones and the Comfortable Recliner.) Had he been present, I'm certain that he would have been moved.

I know I was.

Is that a tear in my eye...

...or just the sunlight reflecting off the ice fields of Hoth?

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, February 08, 2008

In simplicity, beauty

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to longtime comic book artist Creig Flessel, who celebrated his 96th birthday last Saturday. Flessel's career in comics began way back in 1936, two years before Superman made his debut. He is best known for his work on such characters as Superboy, the Shining Knight (whom Flessel created), and especially the original Sandman.

Mr. Flessel lives here in the North Bay — in Marin County's Mill Valley, to be precise. He still makes occasional appearances at our biggest local comics convention, WonderCon, where later this month he will be one of the guests of honor.

I'm looking forward to seeing him there.

In the modern era, when so many comics artists hold the view that if one scratch, scribble, or hash mark is good, twelve will be even better (thanks, Image Comics founders, for your contribution to the medium...), it's always refreshing to see an artist capable of accomplishing great things with a deft economy of line.

That's why I'm a fan of the work of Brian Stelfreeze.

Brian is most familiar to comics fans as a cover artist. His work has adorned the faceplates of such series as Batman: Shadow of the Bat (for which Stelfreeze painted 50 consecutive covers), and recently, the futuristic action serial The Highwaymen. He has also drawn interior pages on occasion.

This evocative Wonder Woman pinup demonstrates how beautifully Stelfreeze can communicate physical power, grace, and subtle emotion without scattering random crosshatching all over the page.

Here's another striking example of the Stelfreeze style, this time featuring Marvel's female assassin, Elektra.

I first discovered Brian Stelfreeze's art when he did the covers for a Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze miniseries published by Millennium Comics in 1991 — the same book that introduced me to the work of another favorite artist, Darryl Banks.

A couple of years ago, Darryl was generous enough to allow me to purchase several original pages from the first issue of that miniseries (subtitled The Monarch of Armageddon). I now own roughly two-thirds of the art from that issue, including this spectacular opening splash page, penciled by Banks and inked by Robert Lewis.

Memo to comics artists everywhere: Less is more. Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and their ilk notwithstanding.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A rolling stone gathers no Morse

The news got a trifle lost amid all the political claptrap, but it's my sad duty to report that actor Barry Morse has passed away.

If you're of a certain age, you will recall Morse as the indomitable Lt. Philip Gerard in the classic 1960s TV drama The Fugitive. (Morse's character was the model for the Tommy Lee Jones role in the Fugitive theatrical film and its sequel, U.S. Marshals.)

For four tension-filled seasons, Gerard pursued the innocent yet accused Dr. Richard Kimble — played by one of television's most memorable stars, David Janssen — before gunning down the one-armed murderer of Kimble's wife in the final episode. That shocking conclusion stood for years as TV's most-viewed hour, until those infernal Super Bowls began catching up.

Slightly more youthful teleholics remember that in the mid-'70s, Morse costarred alongside Mission: Impossible veterans Martin Landau and Barbara Bain in the first season of Space: 1999. It was never clear to me whether Morse actually left the sci-fi series after the first year, or perhaps simply dozed off in his dressing room while reading the notoriously soporific show's next script and no one bothered to awaken him.

If you happen to encounter Mr. Morse in the near future, however, I don't believe he's sleeping.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"They think he's a righteous dude."

Here's a thought for your Fat Tuesday...

Do you know what someone should do? Someone should make a sequel to Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

I'll even get it started.

It's 20 years after Ferris's infamous day off. Ferris has settled into life as a prosperous marketing executive with a major Chicago-based corporation. One morning as he's on his way to work, he stops for a latte at a Starbucks in the ground floor of his office building. By cosmic coincidence, the customer in front of him in line is Sloane Peterson, his high school sweetheart, whom Ferris hasn't seen since they both went off to different colleges nearly two decades earlier.

Ferris and Sloane strike up a conversation over that fine Starbucks java, recapping the events of the past 20 years for one another. As they're talking, they see a homeless man standing outside the window, cadging change from passersby. Imagine their shock when they realize that the scruffy mendicant is their old chum Cameron, whose life has taken a hard left turn over the cliff of despair.

There's only one thing for Ferris to do: Take Cameron on another wild outing through the sights and sounds of Chicago, to help him regain his mojo.

The title: Ferris Bueller's Day Back.

Someone should make that movie.

And if someone makes it without giving me proper screen credit and a sizable renumeration, I will go to their home in the Hollywood hills and puncture their kneecaps with a power drill. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

While they're at it, someone should make a sequel to Bull Durham, too. But I'll save that pitch for another Mardi Gras.

Oh, and don't forget, kids...

For some of us, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 04, 2008

Barack the vote!

We're still a few hours from Super Tuesday here in the Golden State, but here at Casa de SwanShadow, we've already done our civic duty.

KJ and I have regularly exercised our franchise via the mail since the 2000 election season, when she was first diagnosed with cancer. This year, KM joins the ranks of registered voters — her absentee ballot for tomorrow's primary election was the first she's had an opportunity to cast.

In case you're curious, I voted for Barack Obama.

The fact that Obama and I have much in common — both biracial; both the same age (he's four and a half months older than I, which I will never let him forget); both spent the earliest years of our lives in Hawaii — is less central to my vote than the fact that of the available alternatives, I'm confident he'll make the best President.

That's not to say that the "connection factor" is completely without effect. The fact that I can look at Barack Obama and see what I might have become, had I been gifted with Type A ambition instead of Type B laissez-faire, certainly offers an incentive I've never had with another candidate. I'd be disingenuous if I stated otherwise.

But the bottom line is that after eight years of mindlessly mediocre, incorrigibly bull-headed leadership in the White House, this country needs radical redirection and, even more importantly, a dose of electric inspiration. Obama can supply both of those qualities in a way no candidate for President has in my voting lifetime. (Reagan did that for conservatives, I guess, but let's be honest: With the perspective of history, Grandpa was wrong about darn near everything — except for the Berlin wall, and that was all David Hasselhoff's doing, anyway.)

Were Hillary to win the nomination, I wouldn't have a problem voting for her. But I would do so with the same lesser-of-two-unappealing-choices lack of enthusiasm with which I marked the box for John Kerry four years ago. Hillary would make a decent Chief Executive — she'd look positively Lincolnian in the aftermath of Bush 43... but then, so would I — but I'll have a tough time forgetting that she drank the Cheney Kool-Aid on Iraq. Obama is the only candidate who can rightly say that he smelled the poop in the punchbowl from the very start. That's the level of courage and vision we need right now.

America deserves a President who can instill hope in our citizens and trust in our allies — that last a commodity Bush and Co. have pretty well burned through during their perverse reign of terror. I believe that Barack Obama will be that President, given the opportunity.

If you live in a Super Tuesday state, please be sure to exercise your franchise tomorrow — regardless of which party or which candidate you favor. After our First Amendment freedoms, the right to vote (and yes, the right not to vote, if that's your choice) is our greatest liberty as Americans.

If you're a registered Democrat, or an independent in a state where you can vote across party lines, may I kindly suggest that you vote for Senator Obama? Deep in your heart, you know it's the right call.

I'm your Uncle Swan, and I approve this message.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLII commercials

At least the game was exciting.

Since the last vestiges of the 49ers dynasty are more than a decade in the rear-view mirror, in recent years I've mostly watched the Super Bowl to check out the commercials.

It's a good thing that Super Bowl Extra-Large Plus Two turned out to be a tightly contested, down-to-the-wire funfest, because this year's Super Bowl ads? Weaker than that Vitamin Water that Shaq the jockey was hawking.

These were the most memorable of a largely forgettable collection:
  • Bud Light: Man Breathes Fire. Any commercial that involves singeing a cat scores in my book. You know how I feel about cats.

  • Tide To Go: Job Interview. For my money, this one did everything an ad is supposed to do: it caught my attention; it stuck in my memory; and most important of all, it made me want to buy the product.

  • Budweiser: Rocky the Clydesdale. Yes, it was cute and hokey, but I loved the horse who finally made the Budweiser coach-pulling team after umpteen attempts, with a little help from his friend the Dalmatian.

  • Planters Nuts: A Dab of Cashew Will Do Ya. A homely woman rocks the pheromone boost she gets from rubbing cashews into her pulse points. This one was all kinds of creepy and weird, but it worked for me.

  • Coca-Cola: Macy's Parade. Three giant balloons get into a fight over a bottle of Coke. Charlie Brown wins. I'm not sure it made me want to slug down a Coke, but it was funny and unique. Plus, it's Charlie Brown, man. Charlie Brown rules.

  • SoBe Life Water: Thriller. Naomi Campbell zombie-dancing with animated lizards to the King of Pop's venerable classic. At least Michael didn't put in an appearance.

  • T-Mobile: Charles Barkley Out-Parties Dwyane Wade. The Round Mound of Rebound still has the magic. Comedy gold.
There were, of course, far more spots that I didn't find amusing or compelling:Wake me up in time for the next Super Bowl. Or better yet, for the Iron Man movie.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, February 01, 2008

No time for losers, 'cause we are the Champions

Marvel Comics hates me.

First, Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada tried to ruin Spider-Man. Now, he's canceled Marvel's best new mainstream comic book in years, The Order.

It's as though Doctor Doom has seized control of the House of Ideas.

The Order, which debuted last summer, was probably the only positive development to come out of Marvel's Civil War mega-event — you know, that silly business in which Spider-Man unmasked on national television, Iron Man turned into George W. Bush, and Captain America got back-shot like Tupac?

Written by the supremely talented Matt Fraction (co-author of another of my current-favorite Marvel reads, The Immortal Iron Fist, which will probably be canceled now that I've owned up to buying it) and engagingly drawn by Barry Kitson (with whose work I fell in love during his recent stint on DC's Legion of Super-Heroes), The Order chronicles the adventures on a group of rookie superheroes, charged by the United States government as the official protectors of California. With a couple of minor exceptions, all of the heroes in the series were created especially for The Order, and Fraction and Kitson have done masterful work in making each member of the team interesting, individual, and compelling.

Heaven forfend that anything both fresh and unique should be given time to build an audience.

In truth, The Order began life with a strike against it (aside from its focus on unfamiliar characters, that is). When first announced, the series and its eponymous supergroup were supposed to be known as The Champions, a shout-out to a short-lived but fondly remembered Marvel series of the 1970s.

Beginning with The Defenders in 1971, Marvel went through a phase of cobbling together superhero teams from the most unlikely assemblages of candidates. The original Defenders lineup, for example, included Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk — the Silver Surfer joined them in the second issue — bringing together Marvel's least cooperation-friendly characters into a single unit.

The Champions' roster was even more bizarre — the Greek demigod Hercules; the Black Widow, a former Soviet spy turned superheroine; the demonic Ghost Rider; and a couple of original X-Men, Angel and Iceman. (I always wondered whether writer Tony Isabella and editor Len Wein simply stuck pictures of every Marvel character on Len's office wall, donned blindfolds, and threw darts at random to make up the Champions.)

What made the Champions unique to Marvel, aside from their patchwork lineup, was the fact that they were based in Los Angeles — a break from the New York centrality of the rest of the company's series. (The Black Widow and Daredevil had moved to San Francisco together in the early '70s, forming Marvel's first West Coast superteam.) The 21st-century Champions, also L.A.-based, were initially named as an homage to the originals.

Unfortunately for Marvel, a company called Heroic Publishing (home of Flare and Liberty Girl) had snapped up the trademark on the comic book title Champions, Marvel having abandoned it when The Champions was canceled in 1978. When Heroic refused to relinquish the trademark in exchange for monetary considerations, Marvel retitled its new Fraction-Kitson series The Order.

Now, you can just call it defunct.

Thinking back on those disco-era Champions, though...

I always liked the Black Widow as a character. She and Daredevil, with their similar fighting styles and abilities, made a solid partnership, and the Widow's strategic leadership was one of the best features of The Champions. Plus, her simple, elegant costume design — essentially just a black bodysuit, accessorized with a gold-ring belt with a black widow's red "hourglass" on the buckle, and wrist-mounted "stingers" — is a dynamite look.

As you can judge for yourself, from this slick, retro-cool pinup by the inimitable Phil Noto.

Having dropped away from regular comics reading in the late '80s, I was until recently unaware that Marvel's modern-day Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Natalia Romanova (there was a previous, unrelated character codenamed Black Widow in the 1940s), had been temporarily supplanted for a few years by a newer, younger model named Yelena Belova. The second Widow was blonde, of all things. After four decades of the Black Widow as a redhead, that strikes me as just plain wrong... then again, Marvel doesn't care what I like anyway.

Just to show that I can be open to new ideas, however, this attractive drawing by Matt Haley shows Natasha and her youthful counterpart together.

Okay, yeah. That works for me. (Is it now a rule that young superheroines have to wear bare-midriff costumes? And if so, can we reevaluate that rule?)

Natasha has also graced our Common Elements series with her always-welcome appearance. Artist Ty Romsa pairs the Widow with mercenary-at-large Silver Sable in this commissioned drawing.

Today, the Black Widow is a mainstay of the Avengers. That's the "Mighty" Avengers, as opposed to the "New" Avengers, for those of you who have difficulty keeping the teams straight... as do I.

I'm still ticked about The Order, though.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

Labels: , ,