Monday, March 31, 2008

Another year, another 162 games

In the immortal words of baseball scribe Thomas Boswell, time begins on Opening Day.

For the 50th Anniversary edition of the San Francisco Giants, it might not be long before fans begin wishing that time had stopped.

More than any team in recent memory, the 2008 Giants resemble the 1985 "Real Grass, Real Sunshine, Real Baseball" squad — an assortment of has-beens (aging hurlers Vida Blue and Mike Krukow, second baseman Manny Trillo), never-weres (St. Louis-import first baseman David Green, starting pitcher Atlee Hammaker), and untested rookies (oft-injured third baseman Chris "The Tin Man" Brown) that posted the first (and to date, only) 100-loss season in San Francisco history. (In 2007, the Giants went 71-91.)

With the departure-slash-forced retirement of 43-year-old home run king, perennial All-Star, and federal indictee Barry Bonds during the offseason, the Giants lost their one legitimate superstar. In the Bondsman's absence, the focus will be directed to the Giants' starting rotation — with the $127 Million Man, former Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito, leading a gang of young guns — and the Giants' new center fielder, Aaron Rowand, a free agent addition from Philadelphia.

Beyond that? Well, there's not much "there" there at AT&T Park.

Let's review the 25-man roster with which the Giants begin the 2008 campaign today.

Starting pitching

Without question, the strength of the team, at least three-fifths of the time. The Giants' winningest pitcher from last year, Pepperdine alumnus Noah Lowry (14-8, 3.92 ERA), will miss at least the first two weeks as he recovers from surgery. That still leaves the G-Men with three solid starters: Matt Cain, who's ready to explode into All-Star status any second now; Tim Lincecum, the surprise find of 2007; and the aforementioned Zito, who weathered a rocky first year in the National League, but was impressive during the last month of the season and seems primed to return to form this year.

After the Big Three, the rotation will round out with Kevin Correia, who has seen major league time with the Giants in each of the last five seasons but has yet to establish himself, and Jonathan Sanchez, a hard-throwing kid (62 strikeouts in only 52 innings) with serious potential. (Potential = "He hasn't done anything yet.") Correia and Sanchez will duke it out in the early season to see who'll remain in the starting five once Lowry returns.

Relief pitching

In a word: Egad.

The Giants practiced bullpen-by-committee in 2007, and this season promises more of the same. The team is high on Brian "Beach Boy" Wilson, who beat out Brad Hennessey for the closer role late last season. Beyond Wilson, though, the San Francisco relief corps is a motley crew: holdovers Hennessey, Jack Taschner, and Tyler Walker — mediocre journeymen all — and a slew of newcomers ranging from one-time minor league phenom Merkin "Don't Call It a Pubic Wig" Valdez to 39-year-old Japan League import Keiichi Yabu, whose only major league experience came with the Oakland A's four years ago, and who pitched in the Mexican League last season.

Put it this way: Anything after the fifth inning could be a real adventure.


Bengie Molina — possibly the slowest runner in baseball — was the Giants' unlikely offensive hero in 2007, driving home a team-high 81 RBI. Molina will be called upon to replace Bonds as the Giants' cleanup hitter this year. Behind the plate, Bengie's a defensive liability, but an exceptional signal-caller who works effectively with the pitching staff.

Backing up Molina is career minor leaguer Steve Holm, who outplayed the incumbent second-stringer, Eliezer Alfonzo, in the Cactus League.


This will be interesting.

The Giants have no experienced first baseman (Dan Ortmeier will get a shot at winning the full-time job), an over-the-hill second baseman (Ray Durham, who hit a pathetic .218 last year, but has been on fire this spring), a shortstop who has never played at a level above Single-A (Brian Bocock, filling in for the disabled veteran Omar Vizquel), and who knows what at third base (incumbent Pedro "Pete Happy" Feliz was shown the door in the offseason, leaving the Giants with aging journeyman Rich Aurilia and switch-hitting prospect Eugenio Velez as the available options).

Whoever ends up playing around the horn, I'm not seeing much — if any — offensive muscle here. And defense at the corners, especially if converted outfielders Ortmeier and Velez get most of the starts, could be horrific.


If the Giants are going to score runs, they'll have to get most of them from this group.

Newcomer Aaron Rowand comes to the Giants off a Gold Glove-winning, career-best season, and will be counted on to provide a spark both at the plate (.309, 27 HR, 89 RBI, .515 slugging percentage) and in center field, where he'll be the best defensive player the Giants have boasted at that position since the days of Brett Butler.

Flanking Rowand are right fielder Randy Winn, probably the Giants' best all-around hitter, and the dilapidated Dave Roberts in left. Manager Bruce Bochy will want to spread the playing time around to youngsters Fred Lewis (.287 in 58 games) and Rajai Davis (.282 in 51 games), both of whom showed intriguing potential (see definition above) in limited 2007 action.


First in your hearts, last in the National League West.

Let's just hope they avoid passing the century mark in the loss column.

Last word

The Giants' marketing department continues its history of embarrassingly dreadful advertising taglines (i.e., "Hang In There!") with this season's laugher, "All Out, All Season."

Considering the anemic offense with which Bochy will be completing his lineup card, those words could prove frighteningly prophetic by the campaign's end.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Ghosts who walk

Previously on Comic Art Friday...

I promised you a Sal Velluto and Bob Almond "Common Elements" commission two-fer. Doesn't your Uncle Swan always deliver?

Recently, the redoubtable Mr. Velluto has been creating cover art for Egmont, a Swedish company that publishes new comic book adventures of Lee Falk's ageless jungle hero, the Phantom. (Sal may be doing some of the interior art also, but it's difficult to tell from Egmont's Web site — given that I don't read Swedish.)

Hearing that news, I decided to invite Sal & Bob (best known for their three-year collaboration on another African-based series, Black Panther) to pair the Ghost Who Walks — as the Phantom is frequently called — with another classic hero, the beautiful but deadly Blonde Phantom. Below is Sal's finished pencil art...

...complemented by the inks of Bob Almond.

The Phantom holds a historic distinction as perhaps the first fictional character who combined all of the elements we associate today with the term "superhero."

The Phantom wasn't the first hero to wear tights (Robin Hood may have that honor), or have a masked secret identity (that's probably Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel), or operate from a secret base (Doc Savage's 86th Floor, Hidalgo Trading Company, and Fortress of Solitude predate the Phantom by a couple of years), or demonstrate superhuman abilities (we can go back at least as far as the Biblical Samson for that). Falk's lavender-clad jungle warrior was, however, probably the first to bring all of those characteristics together, and certainly the first in the comics medium. The Phantom made his debut in 1936, beating Superman — who's usually thought of as the "original" comic superhero — to the newsstands by a good two years.

In reality, the Phantom is Christopher "Kit" Walker, the 20th successive descendant of the original Phantom to wear his trademark costume. (The fact that a score of different men over a period of several hundred years have donned the Phantom's mask makes the hero appear immortal — hence, "The Ghost Who Walks.") From the Skull Cave, his hidden lair deep in the African jungle (it was on the Indian subcontinent in Falk's earliest stories, but later retconned), the Phantom battles evil in all its forms, blazing away with his twin .45 pistols and leaving the brand of his famed skull ring on the foreheads of his vanquished foes.

Although the Phantom has existed in newspapers since the '30s — his strip continues to be published by King Features Syndicate, with Tony DePaul writing the stories and the great Paul Ryan drawing the pictures — he has frequently ventured into comic books as well. The Phantom's earliest stapled incarnations consisted of reprinted strips, but almost all of the major comics publishers (and several not-so-major ones) have held the franchise to publish new Phantom stories at one time or another. In the U.S., the Phantom's monthly comic stories are currently published by Moonstone; Egmont publishes the completely distinct Scandinavian version, and Frew the Australian counterpart.

Correcting a common Phantom misconception: Although Lee Falk created the Phantom and his name is the one most associated with the hero, Falk only wrote the Phantom's adventures, giving up the art chores after the first few strips. More than a dozen artists have worked on the series over the decades, including Ray Moore, Wilson McCoy, Carmine Infantino, George Olesen, and the legendary Sy Barry, who retired in 1994 after 33 years.

As for the Blonde Phantom, she's something of a pioneer herself.

The Blonde Phantom — in everyday life, secretary Louise Grant — was one of the "second wave" of superheroines introduced in the post-World War II era, as the mostly male heroes of the war years began to decline in popularity. Based on the physical attributes of such wartime pinup queens as Betty Grable (whom the Blonde Phantom resembles), these heroines — including Phantom Lady, the Black Canary, Venus, and Sun Girl, — were designed to appeal both to the returning servicemen and to female readers.

Most of these characters, sadly, were short-lived, though interest in many of them (especially Black Canary and Phantom Lady) has picked up in recent years. The Blonde Phantom remains largely forgotten. But you have to love a woman who could fight crime wearing a floor-length, slit-skirted red dress and high heels.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Nothin' says lovin' like a McMuffin in the oven

Let's all raise a glass to the late, great Herb Peterson, who changed the course of American cuisine forever.

Who's Herb Peterson?
you ask.

Why, the inventor of the Egg McMuffin, of course.

Peterson was a McDonalds franchise owner in Santa Barbara (and a former VP of the advertising firm that held the McDonalds account). In the early 1970s, Peterson, who was partial to eggs Benedict, decided to create a sandwich based on his favorite breakfast fare. His moment of genius: slap a fried egg, a slab of Canadian bacon, and a slice of good old American cheese between the buttered halves of an English muffin, and viola! A handheld simulation of eggs Benedict, perfect for dining on the go.

The Egg McMuffin spawned an entire menu of breakfast items at Mickey D's, including its close cousin, the Sausage McMuffin (like an Egg McMuffin, only with a sausage patty instead of Canadian bacon); the similar McGriddle (like a McMuffin, only with a maple-flavored, waffle-like pancake in place of the English muffin); Breakfast Burritos; and a host of scrambled egg and hotcake combination plates.

Other fast food chains quickly followed suit, leading to such quizzical creations as Jack-in-the-Box's Breakfast Jack (like an Egg McMuffin, only served on a hamburger bun instead of a muffin) and Burger King's Croissan'Wich (like an Egg McMuffin, only... well, you figure it out). Even Starbucks eventually got into the act, although the company recently decided to phase out its line of breakfast sandwiches because baristas complained that they were "too smelly." (The sandwiches, not the baristas. Although I imagine that some of the more bohemian espresso-slingers occasionally get a mite funky also.)

Peterson's brainchild also led to one of the funniest bits of scripted comedy ever produced. On National Lampoon's 1977 album That's Not Funny, That's Sick, a Mister Rogers spoof character named Mr. Roberts (played by future mockumentarian and Mr. Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Guest) interviews a fuzzy-brained bass player (played by future Not Ready for Prime Time Player and Scarlett Johansen costar Bill Murray) in typically inane Fred Rogers style:
Mr. Roberts: Can you say, "Egg McMuffin"?
Bassist: Eggamuffin.
Mr. Roberts: I like the way you say that.
At the time of his passing on Tuesday, Herb Peterson was 89 years old. I once ate an Egg McMuffin that had been desiccating under a heat lamp at least that long.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hey, Nineteen!

My daughter KM is 19 today.

Nineteen is my lucky number. My daughter is most certainly the luck of my life. Great student (Dean's High Honors in her first semester of college), excellent horsewoman (with a wall filled with ribbons to prove it), solid citizen (beloved by all who know her), and all-around wonderful person ('cause I said so).

KJ and I could not have bargained for a better kid.

Which reminds me of a Steely Dan number...
Hey Nineteen
That's 'Retha Franklin
She don't remember
The Queen of Soul
It's hard times befallen
The sole survivors
She thinks I'm crazy
But I'm just growing old...
KM does, in fact, remember the Queen of Soul, who just happens to share her birthday.

Happy birthday, Aretha.

And happy birthday to you, Punkin. May my God and yours grant you long life and good days.

You go, Supergirl!

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Monday, March 24, 2008

What's Up With That? #60: What part of a non-chicken is a Chicken-Free Nugget?

I spotted this product in a supermarket yesterday...

Chicken-Free Nuggets.

Now, that's just wrong.

Plain old chicken nuggets (we'll leave the "Mc" out of the discussion, lest we cloud our minds with anticorporate prejudice) are terrifying enough. Who knows what the devil they're putting in those things? It's my suspicion that they're made of ground-up chicken heads, held together with the gelatinous renderings of boiled chicken feet. (I couldn't prove it in a court of law. I'm just telling you what I think.)

But chicken-FREE nuggets?

I don't even care to contemplate what might be in these.

Perhaps one of my militant vegetarian readers can explain this to me. Why does this product even exist? If you're of a mind that it's wrong to slaughter innocent animals for human consumption, why would you wish to pretend to be engaged in that very activity? After all, no one goes to the frozen foods section hunting for: "Faux Human Nuggets: Like cannibalism, only without the life sentence."

And just look at the list of supposed ingredients:
Hydrated textured soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate. Contains less than 2% of: rice starch, salt, toasted onion powder, flavorings, spices, maltodextrin, dehydrated celery, sea salt, garlic powder, carrageenan, natural spice oils, spice extracts.
Can anyone honestly believe that unnatural amalgamation is somehow healthier for you to eat than good old poultry, fried fresh on the drumstick?

Me, I'll stick to my local megamart's boneless, skinless chicken breasts. At least I know those were sliced from the carcass of a real, once-live gallus domesticus.

I mean...

I think they were.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

There is no Gravity... the Earth sucks

Over at Comics Should Be Good — perhaps the most consistently interesting and engaging comics-focused blog on these here Internets — contributor Brian Cronin is currently taking a fan poll of favorite comic series runs.

For the benefit of the non-geeks in our audience, the term "run" describes a period of consecutive — or nearly consecutive — issues by a comics creator (writer or artist) on a specific continuing series. In the case of series with many years (or even several decades) of history, fans often speak of the evolution of a series in terms of the runs by various creators — when discussing the Amazing Spider-Man of the 1960s, for example, the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run precedes the Lee/John Romita Sr. run.

I'm still puzzling over my top ten runs of all time, but I can guarantee that this one will make the list: the three-year run of Black Panther (December 1999 through November 2002) that featured writer Christopher J. Priest and the artistic tandem of penciler Sal Velluto and inker Bob Almond.

Priest had been writing the Panther's adventures for a year before Sal & Bob came on board (Mark Texiera, Joe Jusko, and Mark D. "Doc" Bright each drew a few issues during that period), and he continued on the book for another year after Sal & Bob departed (with art by Jorge Lucas, Jim Calafiore, and Patrick Zircher, among others). But the unique synergy occasioned by the combination of Priest's thought-provoking scripts and Sal & Bob's propulsive art lifted Black Panther to heights it had rarely achieved before (mostly during the run of writer Don McGregor in the 1970s), and never since. (I'm on the record as ambivalent about the current Black Panther series, written for the past three years by Reginald Hudlin. I appreciate Hudlin's passion for the title character and his milieu, but Reggie's characterizations — and especially his dialogue — drive me to distraction more often than not.)

Sal Velluto and Bob Almond compliment one another like smoked salmon and cream cheese. It's a sad commentary on the state of the industry when an artistic team with their ability and professionalism can't find an ongoing series on which to share their talents with the comics-buying public. Sal & Bob did, however, reunite a couple of years ago (in partnership with writer Joshua Dysart) for a delightful six-issue miniseries for Penny-Farthing Press, entitled Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril. A fun, action-packed, nostalgic tale in the spirit of the late, great Dave Stevens's Rocketeer, it's worth seeking out.

Recently, I got Sal & Bob back together for a pair of Common Elements commissions. The first of these artworks — we'll look at the second one next Friday — teams Captain Gravity with Marvel Comics' youthful hero with similar powers, who's known simply as Gravity.

Let's look first at the raw pencil art, cleverly designed and impeccably rendered by Sal Velluto:

And now the finished version, inked by Bob Almond:

I enjoyed reading the adventures of both of these characters, short-lived though they were. They're excellent examples of the kind of stories I wish more comics companies took to the time to tell.

Captain Gravity (who has appeared in two limited-run series, the first of which was written and illustrated by a different creative team) offers an interesting spin on social issues, in that the public in Captain Gravity's pre-WWII Hollywood does not know that the man behind the hero's mask is African-American. Although it's ostensibly a superhero yarn, Captain Gravity's period setting gives it a pulp magazine appeal that I, at least, found irresistible. Both Captain Gravity miniseries are worth searching out in trade paperback format.

Gravity, who starred in an eponymous five-issue mini from Marvel Comics, reminds me of the charm and energy of early-period Spider-Man, as well the modern-age superhero Invincible (whom Gravity resembles in both costume and character). Gravity was killed off by writer Dwayne McDuffie during the subsequent miniseries Beyond!, then resurrected by McDuffie during his brief tenure on Fantastic Four. When last seen, Gravity and a coterie of his fellow C-level heroes — dubbing themselves "The League of Losers" — had embarked on a new life in a far-distant alternate future timeline.

Back with another Sal & Bob Common Elements creation next week.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

For what it's worth

Five years.

3,990 American lives.

29,314 Americans wounded.

Over $512 billion (with a B) spent.

No end in sight.

"It's worth it." — George W. Bush

You be the judge.

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They've killed Kinch!

Ivan Dixon, the talented actor-director best known to teleholics of a certain age as Sgt. James "Kinch" Kinchloe, the technical wizard POW on Hogan's Heroes, has died at age 76.

Dixon's Hollywood career began in the 1950s, when he served as Sidney Poitier's double and stand-in on such films as The Defiant Ones, and later as Poitier's costar in Porgy and Bess and A Raisin in the Sun. He became one of the first black actors to appear in a regular, nonstereotypical role on an American TV series when he was cast in Hogan's Heroes in 1965.

Dixon mostly set acting aside after leaving Hogan's at the end of the show's fifth season. (It remains one of TV's enduring mysteries that Hogan's Heroes stayed on the air for six years.) His two notable roles in post-Stalag 13 life were as Lonnie, the tough-yet-compassionate ex-con straw boss in the classic '70s film comedy Car Wash ("I got to have more money, Mr. B.!"), and as courageous Dr. Alan Drummond, a leader of the resistance movement in the Cold War drama Amerika.

Instead, Dixon refocused his career behind the camera, becoming one of TV's busiest directors throughout the '70s and '80s. He helmed the canvas chair for dozens of episodes of series television, most frequently on The Rockford Files (nine episodes) and Magnum P.I. (13 episodes), but also on shows as diverse as The Waltons, The Greatest American Hero, and Quantum Leap.

After retiring from directing, Dixon owned a radio station in Hawaii for a number of years. (I guess all those years as Colonel Hogan's communications guy finally paid off.)

His career honors included one Emmy nomination (Best Lead Actor in a Drama for the 1967 CBS Playhouse presentation The Final War of Olly Winter), four NAACP Image Awards, the National Black Theatre Award, and the Black American Cinema Society's Paul Robeson Pioneer Award.

As résumés go, that's a pretty darned good one.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Comic Art Friday exclusive: Inkwell Awards founder Bob Almond (part two of two)

Previously on Comic Art Friday...

We presented the first half of our exclusive interview with comic book artist Bob Almond, one of the industry's foremost inkers. Bob stopped by SSTOL to chat with us about the Inkwell Awards, which will honor artists who practice this misunderstood, often unheralded specialty. As founder of the Inkwell Awards, Bob is the perfect man to give us the straight skinny on this unique new recognition program.

As in last week's session, we'll intersperse Bob's comments with "before and after" examples of commission projects "The King of Ink" has done for me over the past several years.

We now rejoin our interview with Mr. Almond, already in progress.

SSTOL: In addition to yourself, Bob, who are the fine folks who make up the Inkwell Awards committee?

Bob Almond: The committee consists of several talents as passionate as I am for getting our message out. I'll start off with Bill Nichols, my editor at Sketch Magazine, where the awards were born in my "Inkblots" column. Bill and the magazine were the instruments that allowed me to take my idea and let it germinate. And, besides being another inker, Bill brings an editor's perspective to the game. His goal has been to educate and help other creators in our community.

Then there's Tim Townsend, our unofficial ambassador. He's about as close to "superstar" status as inkers get these days. Tim was my first choice for a team player due to his ability to bridge and connect to professionals from the legendary veterans up to the young hotshots of the medium.

We have Jimmy Tournas, fellow inker and moderator of the Inkwell mailing list on Yahoo Groups. Jimmy is one of the most giving and nicest guys around. He is the reason we have accomplished so much at our site, since he designed and created the bulk of it. He's the tech guy I go to when I'm typically ignorant of some matter. Definitely the "glue" of the group.

Daniel Best
is our resident writer Down Under. His blog, 20th Century Danny Boy, has always impressed me for showing his efforts to help out the little guy, or yesterday's legends who have fallen off the radar. For that reason, he's like the soul of our team mission.

And lastly, we have our non-inker celebrities, Mike Marts and Adam Hughes. Mike is presently a DC Comics senior editor, and has spent editorial stints at both Acclaim Comics and twice at Marvel. In fact, he even edited my run on Black Panther. Mike knows how to motivate the best out of people, he knows and loves the business, and he adds to our credibility by adding a mainstream editor to the fold in support of our cause of respecting and giving back to those ink artists deserving of attention.

And what can I say about Adam that his work doesn't? He's a multi-talented and respected artist with whom we are sincerely honored to be sharing the floor. The man knows how to ink, but he transcends that. And yet, he still feels it important enough to help recognize that what we do is important. Besides overseeing the awards proceedings, Mike and Adam bring a cross-professional, non-partisan atmosphere to the group which amplifies the solidarity involved. In other words, they really make us look good!

SSTOL: You've named your Lifetime Achievement Award after Joe Sinnott. Why did you choose Mr. Sinnott, who's probably best known for his work over Jack Kirby's pencils during Marvel's Silver Age?

Bob Almond: The committee discussed several candidates for the title, in terms of having an ink artist whose name recognition brings distinction and respect to the craft due to his or her quality of work, character, and accomplishments through the years. Ultimately, we all agreed on Joltin' Joe.

SSTOL: I definitely concur with that choice — Sinnott was my favorite inker of that historic period. Who are some of the other inkers who most influenced your own work?

Bob Almond: As a young 'un Marvel fan in the mid-to-late '70s, I always adored and studied the work of Joe Rubinstein, Bob Layton, Terry Austin, Tom Palmer, and Klaus Janson.

I'd collected back issues and was familiar with the great Golden and Silver Age inkers, but I felt that these upstarts were pushing the medium even further along and made the work more exciting overall, almost regardless of who penciled the work. So, while I studied and was inspired by others along the way, I have to say that those five guys were my earliest influences.

SSTOL: One final question, Bob. If you could put to rest one misconception about inking, what would it be?

Bob Almond: I may need to stretch that beyond one misconception when it comes to our work. Not to sound bitter, but there's a belief by some that inkers are talentless hacks. Many ink artists are fine, accomplished pencilers and painters who have cut across to other areas like commercial art, animation, and storyboarding. Inkers know how to draw, but tend to be quicker or better at the inking path of creation, thus making it a more practical career choice.

Some feel that inkers just trace the work. But they don't know what the work looked like when we got it. The reader is actually seeing our interpretation of the work in ink. Often we add, edit, and redraw much of what was there originally, for whatever reason.

Also, some feel that we're interchangeable. I'm sure many could also challenge that line of thinking by recalling some art matches [of penciler and inker] that were ill-conceived by editors over the years. With the right style combination, the inker will certainly bring the best out of the pencil art, and achieve transcendent work that will be cherished for years to come.

Voting for the Inkwell Awards begins April 1. If you're a fan of comic art, please take a moment to drop by the site, and put in a mention for your favorite inkers. The competition covers both classic and modern artists, so there's ample opportunity to acknowledge all of your favorites past and present.

Thanks to my friend Bob Almond for his generous participation!

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rockets away, Dave Stevens

Most of the time, I relegate my comics-focused commentary to our Comic Art Friday feature. This week, however, so as not to cast a pall over the second half of our interview with Inkwell Awards founder Bob Almond — which you can enjoy in this space beginning tomorrow — I'm going to bend the rule just a touch, in a worthy cause.

Comic book and pinup artist Dave Stevens passed away from leukemia earlier this week, at the far-too-young age of 52.

Stevens was best known to the public and within the comics industry for two significant — and in an odd way, related — accomplishments.

First, he was the writer, artist, and creative visionary behind The Rocketeer, a groundbreaking yet wistfully nostalgic series that spawned a delightful live-action Disney film in 1991. (I understand that Stevens wasn't particularly pleased with the movie, and I respect his reasons. But I enjoyed it anyway.)

Second, Stevens was responsible for introducing 1950s pinup queen Bettie Page to a new legion of fans when he used Page's likeness as the model for the Rocketeer's girlfriend. Stevens also personally sought out and befriended Page herself, who had withdrawn from public life to the degree that many fans believed that she had died. The renewed interest in Page's career, prompted by Stevens's impeccable depiction of her in his numerous artworks, helped the former model gain some financial stability in addition to fresh admirers.

As an artist, Stevens was notorious for his meticulous approach to his work — an obsessiveness that severely limited his output. The work he did produce, though, was nothing short of incredible. No one in the business drew more flawlessly beautiful women or more lushly detailed settings. Every artist creating "good girl" art today owes a debt of influence and inspiration to Stevens, both for his synthesis of the great masters of the form and for his own technical brilliance.

Stevens also earned a well-founded reputation as an intensely private individual — although he had battled leukemia for several years, many of his fans (myself included) remained unaware of his illness until the news of his death arrived.

It's unfortunate that the relative scantiness (no pun intended) of Stevens's production volume will prevent his work from being more widely known and appreciated outside the circle of comics fans and pinup art collectors. He was as enormous a talent as this generation of artists has produced.

A few years back, I commissioned Heavy Metal artist Michael L. Peters to create a piece for my Common Elements series featuring the Rocketeer and DC Comics' interplanetary adventurer, Adam Strange. It's as close to a Stevens original as I'm ever likely to own.

Michael's drawing is the only Common Elements artwork on permanent display in my home — it hangs on the north wall of our living room. I will treasure it always as a loving homage to Stevens's creation.

For fans who wish to pay their respects in a tangible way, Stevens's family asks that donations in Dave Stevens's name be made to the Hairy Cell Leukemia Research Foundation.

Keep 'em flying, Dave.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What's Up With That? #59: Mary Ann, meet Mary Jane

Now, sit right back and you'll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful ride;
That ended with a Dawn Wells bust --
Her car had weed inside.

Who would have suspected that sweet, innocent, fresh-faced Mary Ann Summers was a midnight toker?

Gilligan's Island star Wells, today a sprightly 69-year-old, was sentenced to six months probation this week following an arrest in Idaho last October, after a deputy sheriff observed Wells driving erratically.

Upon pulling Wells over, the officer detected the unmistakable aroma of combusting cannabis wafting from the vehicle. A subsequent search turned up four partially consumed doobies, and two cases commonly used for storing marijuana. Wells also failed a field sobriety test.

In addition to the probationary stint, the television legend was slapped with a five-day jail sentence and a $400 fine. (That's the inflationary equivalent of a ticket on a three-hour Hawaiian cruise in 1965.)

Wells reportedly told the arresting officer that the marijuana had been left in her car by three anonymous hitchhikers she had picked up earlier in the evening. Following sentencing, Wells's attorney changed the story, saying that a friend of Wells had borrowed her car on the day in question, and absent-mindedly left his stoner supplies behind. (Memo to Mary Ann: The old "it's my car, but it's not my stuff" gambit played out ages ago. Ask Lindsay Lohan.)

Gilligan fans will recall that Wells's late costar Bob Denver was no stranger to the allure of tetrahydrocannabinol. Denver was busted in 1998 after a package containing marijuana was delivered to his home. At the time, Denver claimed that the package had been sent by his old friend Dawn Wells. Given recent events, that story takes on a fresh new light of relevance.

By the way... the age-old "Ginger or Mary Ann?" debate, does anyone ever pick Ginger?

Perhaps now we know why Mary Ann was so popular.

At least, one of the reasons why.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Your Idol Top Twelve, America

Yeah, yeah, I know... I've usually weighed in on the season's American Idol contestants long before we get down to the Deadly Dozen.

But I've gotta be honest here.

As much as Seacrest and the Gang of Three keep pounding us every week with the proposition that this year's cast is "the most talented ever," I'm just not seeing it. Oh, there's some talent in the bunch, as we'll discuss in a moment, but seriously, this is the most charisma-challenged collection of wannabe Idols since... well... last season, when a freaky kid who couldn't sing a lick ran far deeper into the competition than he ever should have, simply because he was mildly interesting amid a tepid field.

This season, we don't even have Sanjaya to kick around any more.

In Idol's best cycles, it's had drama. Sometimes, that drama derived from a clash of similar styles — as in Season Three, when a trio of massive-voiced R&B divas (LaToya London, eventual winner Fantasia Barrino, and 2007 Academy Award honoree Jennifer Hudson) vied for the crown. At other times, the drama surrounded a coterie of equally likable contestants with disparate, but roughly equal, talents — the triumvirate of Kimberley Locke, Clay Aiken, and ultimate victor Ruben Studdard in Season Two; the four-headed popularity contest between Chris Daughtry, Elliott Yamin, Katharine McPhee, and winner Taylor Hicks in Season Five.

Alas, no drama tonight.

So far this season, it's tough to build much enthusiasm about any of the hopefuls, each of whom is bland and vanilla in her or his own bland, vanilla way. I can't imagine wanting to download a single, much less an entire album's worth of material, by any performer in the Class of '08.

But since we here at SSTOL never permit overwhelming ennui to stand in the way of blogging, we press ahead. Wiping the sleep gunk from our crusty eyelids, let's review the Top Twelve for Idol Season Seven. We'll take 'em in — oh, what the heck — reverse alphabetical order, so as not to impose upon the (yawn) suspense.

Brooke White. As exciting as her name. A perky blonde Mormon kid from Arizona — with all the thrill potential that impliezzzzz... — Brooke is one of the contestants leveraging the new-for-'08 rule permitting performers to play their own instruments onstage. We've seen her tickle the ivories during Hollywood Week, and strum her way through a downbeat cover of Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" on guitar. What we haven't seen is even a modicum of personality. Brooke can sing just fine, but man, is she boring. Her skills and the Rocky Mountain LDS voting block should keep her in contention for the top five.

Carly Smithson. Irish-born chanteuse Carly is one of several "ringers" in this year's field — contestants who've previously signed recording contracts, and, in Carly's case, recorded at least one major-label album (2001's MCA Records release Ultimate High, recorded under her maiden name Carly Hennessey). (I know — this seems antithetical to Idol's entire "discovering unknown talent" concept. But I just report the facts.) Carly, in fact, passed the Idol audition phase back in Season Five, but was unable to continue in the competition due to visa problems. Not surprisingly, Carly is the most polished performer of the finalists. She'll steamroll her way at least into the top three.

Amanda Overmyer. Perhaps the only real surprise in the Top Twelve, Amanda's a raspy-voiced rocker chick — think Janis Joplin without the heart or nuance, and with a hideous faux-Goth makeover. She really can't sing very well — her rendition of one of my favorite '70s classics, Kansas's "Carry On, Wayward Son," made my eardrums scream for mercy — and her stony-faced demeanor is off-putting, to say the least. Amanda found her niche last week, however, with an acceptable cover of Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You." I'll be shocked if she lasts long enough to make the Idol summer tour, which traditionally features the top ten finalists.

Syesha Mercado.
In most seasons, Idol serves up a plethora of female hopefuls who appear to believe they're the next Whitney Houston. This year, there's only one diva: Syesha (it's pronounced Cy-EE-sha). She's got a decent enough voice, but has a penchant for abominable song selection — she growled a hideous version of "Tobacco Road" a couple of weeks back, and delivered an oddly gender-flipped rearrangement of Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones." Purely from an aesthetic perspective, I hope Syesha sticks around a while — she's the most attractive of the female contestants, in a year when attractiveness is in short supply — but she'll have to pick more effective material. She's a mid-round elimination at best.

Ramiele Malubay. This year's edition of Season Three's Jasmine Trias, Ramiele is a petite Asian-American girl who'll pick up a lot of what I call the "stuffed animal" vote — she's the cutest and cuddliest member of the cast, and ratchets up her adorability factor by bawling uncontrollably whenever a fellow contestant is eliminated. In her defense, however, Ramiele can also sing, with a startlingly powerful voice encased in so diminutive a package. I wouldn't be at all shocked to see her in the top half of the draw.

Michael Johns. Like Carly, Michael's another of the ringers — he was twice signed to Madonna's record label, albeit without actually releasing an album — and also like Carly, a candidate to be American Idol's first non-American-born Idol (he's an Aussie from Perth, and even bears some slight resemblance to his late homeboy, Heath Ledger). He is, if I'm not mistaken, the oldest-ever Idol finalist at age 29, and he could easily pass for a decade older. He's a talent, but after the Taylor Hicks fiasco of two seasons ago, I suspect that Idol's producers will undermine his chances at every turn. Middle of the pack, most likely.

David Hernandez. One of three Davids in the Top Twelve, David H. is this year's sex-scandal Idol. Prior to his moment in the television spotlight, he worked as a stripper and lap-dance provider at a gay bar in Phoenix — an establishment bearing the none-too-subtle moniker "Dick's Cabaret." Unlike the fabled Frenchie Davis of Season Two, who was booted from the show when news came to light that she had posed nude for a pornographic Web site, David H. has been given a free pass by Idol's producers. He won't last more than a couple of weeks, though — he's not much of a singer, and — surprisingly, given his background — he's not a very captivating performer, either.

Chikezie Eze. The only male soul singer in this season's cast, Chikezie (who, in the manner of Fantasia and Mandisa before him, appears to have deep-sixed his surname somewhere on the way to the finals) seems like a nice fellow. Unfortunately, that affability is all that he has going for him here. His vocal style approximates that of the late Luther Vandross in the later years of that legend's life, but Chikezie doesn't have Luther's ability or charisma. He'll be a candidate for the exit every week until he's gone, which will probably be soon.

Kristy Lee Cook. Yet another ringer: Kristy was signed by BMI Records in 2001. No less a celebrity than the now-notorious Britney Spears showed up for a cameo in Kristy's first music video — a video that earned the country singer from Oregon the nickname "KKKristy" in online forums, as she performs a portion of her number standing in front of a Confederate flag. The second coming of Kellie Pickler — only with even less talent, if you can imagine that's possible — Ms. Cook will likely draw some niche votes from country fans, but not enough to propel her higher than eighth or ninth.

David Cook. The field's most identity-challenged contestant, in that he shares his surname with one of his competitors and his given name with two others. I'll confess that I didn't think much of David C. the first couple of weeks of competition — to me, he sounds pretty much like a dozen other grunge rockers I could name, and a zillion more no one could name — but he impressed me last week with an arrestingly good alt-rock remake of Lionel Richie's "Hello." (I would not have thought it possible to do a listenable alt-rock cover of a Lionel Richie song, but I learn new things all the time.) If David C. can keep pulling that kind of rabbit out of his musical hat, he'll stick around for a few weeks.

Jason Castro. Dreadlocked Jason vaulted from obscurity last week with a gorgeous, sensitive rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," the most familiar cover of which was recorded by Jeff Buckley (literally hundreds of other singers have recorded the song also). As with David Cook before him, Jason needs this level of artistry to break loose every week, because before this, I was sneaking a bathroom break every time he stepped on stage.

David Archuleta. Young David A. is problematic — he's an unquestionably talented kid (he also competed, and won, on the revival of Star Search a few years back) who wouldn't appear to have much, if indeed any, potential as a popular recording artist. His is the sort of musical performance ability that would have, in an earlier generation, made him an ideal candidate for The Mickey Mouse Club alongside Britney, Justin, and the rest. But unless he's hiding some serious Timberlake in his hip pocket, he'll spend his career singing in cruise ship lounges and theme parks. (Not that that's a bad thing.) I would not be surprised if David A. survived until the final round. I would not even be shocked if he won. I just can't imagine him selling many CDs.

So there you have it, America. Vote early, and vote often. We'll check back in a few weeks to see who's still standing.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Spitzer? I didn't even touch her!

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer just learned the danger of keeping an escort service on speed dial.

Spitzer publicly apologized today — albeit without specificity — for his involvement with a high-ticket prostitution ring targeted in a federal investigation. According to news reports, a wiretapped conversation revealed Spitzer soliciting the services of a professional companion in the employ of the ironically named Emperors Club VIP. The assignation allegedly was arranged in advance of the Governor's recent trip to the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel (possibly related to the notorious madam of similar name?) in Washington, D.C.

Can you imagine how this discovery must have played out?

I can just see some low-level FBI flunky sitting in a van wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and a set of headphones, nursing a Diet Pepsi and a bag of Cheetos, listening to the calls coming into the escort service.

Suddenly, his ears perk up. "That sounds like..."

He listens further.

"It is! That's Governor Spitzer! My career is totally made!"

And Day-Glo orange Cheeto dust goes flying everywhere.

Now here's the part that baffles me. According to the reports, Emperors Club VIP charges as much as $5,500 per hour for the services of its (ahem) staff. Call me naïve ("You're naïve!"), but seriously — what "service" could anyone possibly provide in an hour that's worth $5,500? That's practically a down payment on a house, for crying out loud.

Although, I suppose it's as that noted connoisseur of the world's oldest profession, Charlie Sheen, once remarked: "I don't pay 'em for sex — I pay 'em to go away afterward."

Unfortunately for Mr. Spitzer, he didn't pay 'em enough to use a secure phone line.

One last touch of irony: For his costly tryst, Spitzer appears to have registered at the Mayflower under the pseudonym "George Fox." Students of religious history will recall that George Fox was the founder of the Society of Friends, the sect more familiarly known as Quakers. [You can insert your own punch line here.]

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Comic Art Friday exclusive: Inkwell Awards founder Bob Almond (part one of two)

You've arrived at a good time, friend reader. Your Uncle Swan has a special treat in store for today's Comic Art Friday... and for next week's, as well.

If you drop by this august establishment frequently, you'll recognize the name of comic book artist Bob Almond, whose titanic talent has graced many a Comic Art Friday. One of the most gifted inking specialists in the industry, Bob is a master at transforming pencil drawings into beautifully finished art.

Over the past few years, Bob has accepted about 30 commissions from me. It's fair to say that my art galleries would be drastically different were it not for the brush strokes and pen lines of the man other collectors and I affectionately call "The King of Ink."

Recently, Bob teamed with a stellar assemblage of comic industry insiders to create the Inkwell Awards, a soon-to-be-annual celebration of inking artists and their craft. Through his "Inkblots" column in Sketch Magazine, Bob developed the concept of acknowledging the often overlooked (and in my opinion, tragically undervalued) artists who, as Bob defines it, specialize in:
"the craft of enhancing an illustration through the means of redrawing pencil lines with ink and its related tools... in areas of — but not limited to — weight, space, depth, definition, contrast, texture, composition and design."
Online balloting for the inaugural Inkwell Awards begins on April 1. In anticipation of the launch, Bob graciously consented to an interview with SSTOL. You're about to read the first half of this interview; we'll publish Part Two next Friday. To illustrate (no pun intended) the importance of "ink editing," I've chosen some of Bob's finest "before and after" projects from my collection to accompany this conversation.

SSTOL: Bob, what inspired you to create the Inkwell Awards? And why do you think that inkers don't get more recognition in the comics community?

Bob Almond: Actually, to combine these related questions into one answer, the fact that ink artists don't [get their just recognition] is what inspired me to create the awards. One reason for the latter is the fact that "inker" is almost exclusively a comic book industry product. As such, the name doesn't have a precedent for people comprehending what exactly s/he does.

In general, everyone knows what a penciler does, and they can easily determine that they draw. Same with the letterer, colorist, and even the editor. Not the inker. The common understanding from the public is that we fill in the blacks, or that we color, and, of course, that we "trace," which is the simplest and most ignorant of definition of our craft. If that was all we did, then anyone off the street could do it.

The other reason is that, for whatever reason, the status of inkers [within the comics industry] has been diminished of late. Their credits have been absent from some solicitations, reprint collection covers, and reprint sample art. Some major conventions haven't listed inkers in their guest lists, and some industry awards don't give them their own category. Inkers used to be one of the top three creator categories, but they've lost some leverage in that arena due to — in our opinion — less recognition for their work and lack of information.

We inkers certainly don't follow this line of work for the money. We do it for the love of the medium and craft, and for the credit. This is what motivated me to initiate an effort to give back to the invisible inker — often unsung, like the bassist of a band, who's not a rock star like the lead singer or guitarist.

We want to show appreciation to the ink artists, as well as have our site consisting of information and resources to help educate and inform the fans on what we do. Not to elevate our work to that of brain surgery or anything pretentious — we just feel it is an essential part of sequential art production in the area of quality control and storytelling enhancement.

SSTOL: In this age of computer graphics, is inking a dying art?

Bob Almond: Dying, no. Diminished, yes. But not necessarily due to computer tech. The comic book implosion of the '90s caused much of that, as in the other areas of production, simply from a reduction of publishers and titles.

The introduction of actual digital inking added but a new component to the equation of creating comics. It consists of using a "wand" tool on a tablet or the screen to simulate the inking gestures without ink. But this skill has been extremely limited in usage, because of the cost and the difficulty of getting that natural look and versatility of line except over the most simplest of drawings. I only know of Alex Maleev and Brian Bolland who use it on their own art in the mainstream.

The misnomer "digital inking," the process of darkening and cleaning scanned pencil art lines in Photoshop, is not inking at all. [The term is] actually insulting to the traditional inkers. It's a cost-cutting measure and another exclusively comic book industry product, one that some pencil artists have requested in the goal of achieving more art sincerity.

But I feel what they've lost is the distinctive power of the ink through the missing weights, depth, textures, and other enhancing traits. Comic art commission clients know this, as do some editors. So I don't believe that the craft of inking will "die." But our present status could surely use a boost.

SSTOL: From a historical perspective, why is inking as a specialty such an important part of comic art?

Bob Almond: Deadlines. Inking was used on comic strips, and a form of it was created in the production of animation cells. But it was the comic book publishers who realized early on, when the medium was still young, that they could get more work out of their most popular and skilled artists by having their work inked by other artists. This way, a prolific superstar like Jack Kirby, for example, could draw and create most of the Silver Age Marvel Universe on his own. So it's a quantity tool.

Inking in general was also an essential part of the process, because the art wouldn't print properly, if at all, just in pencil. Successive decades later, technology allowed for such a possibility, but uninked art was used sparingly until recently. But as I discussed, it's also a quality tool, as the missing ink is very much missed.

In next Friday's second half of our interview, Bob Almond introduces us to the array of creators behind the Inkwell Awards, and also to some of the inkers who helped shape his own personal perspective on this unique artistic craft.

So, join us here in seven, won't you?

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

What were once vices are now habits

I have often said that it is a very good thing that I grew up in a household where neither of my parents used tobacco or drank alcohol. Given my tendency toward compulsive personality, I would likely have smoked and swilled myself into an early grave by now.

If you look up "creature of habit" in your Funk & Wagnalls, you'll find my photo there. (Assuming you still had a Funk & Wagnalls. Which, considering that the venerable encyclopedia ceased publication at least a decade ago, you probably don't.)

Take, for example, my morning coffee ritual.

Now, coffee itself has been a part of my daily climb toward sanity more or less since my college days. During my career in the corporate world, I was fortunate enough to have worked for employers who supplied free coffee for their minions, so I never had to actually purchase coffee.

But when I just the ranks of the self-employed, I had to begin stocking my own java. This meant, of course, that I not only needed to buy coffee, but a machine in which to brew it. I'm now on my third Mr. Coffee in the past six years. It comes in handy on the days when I am either too cheap or too lazy to swing by one of the bazillion caffeine-dispensing outlets I can hit from my house with a smartly flung stone, and pay a college student with a nose ring to brew my coffee for me.

What happened recently, however, is that I have begun grinding my own coffee beans fresh most mornings. This process evolved when a client gave me a gift box of whole-bean coffee from Starbucks last Christmas. My nascent ownership of whole-bean coffee required that I obtain a device that would pummel the brown nuggets of joy into usable powder. So with the aid of my nearby Wal-Mart, I became the proud possessor of a Black and Decker SmartGrinder, a marvel of 21st-century technology that whips tiny roasted pods to a frenzy in no time flat.

Before too long, of course, I had exhausted the supply of Christmas coffee. But now that I owned a coffee grinder, I couldn't simply allow it to lie fallow on my kitchen counter. "Feed me, Seymour!" it cried — remarkable in that small household appliances do not usually speak to me, and also in that my name is not Seymour.

But I digress.

So now I find myself trekking every couple of weeks to Starbucks to buy more whole-bean coffee, thus justifying my ownership of the grinder. The beneficial side effect is that I have frequent opportunity to sample different varieties of coffee, broadening my palate even as I flatten my wallet. The less positive result is that every morning after I drop my collegian daughter at her academic institution of choice, I must engage in the elaborate alchemy of coffee-making: grinding the beans, rinsing the carafe, loading Mr. Coffee with water, replacing the filter, filling the basket with newly ground coffee, initiating the brewing, cleaning the grinder, vacuum-sealing the canister where the beans are kept to ensure freshness...

It's a lot of work.

And the scary thing is, I almost enjoy the ritual.

Which means I won't be able to stop doing it anytime soon.

In case you're curious, this morning's grind is Starbucks Ethiopia Sidamo — "From the Birthplace of Coffee," or so the label says. It's rich, complex, slightly acidic yet not overpowering, and it leaves behind a bright, refreshing, almost lemony aftertaste. It does not, however, inspire me to want to run 10,000 meters or convert to Rastafarianism. Take that, Haile Gebreselassie.

Lord help me if I ever get hooked on espresso.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Gygax? Dygax. Bygax.

When I heard that Dungeons & Dragons cocreator Gary Gygax had died, in a flash it was 1978 all over again.

Now, you might suppose that — considering my lifelong obsession with comic books — I've been a major-league gamer geek also, as the two addictions often go hand in hand.

In thinking so, however, you would be mistaken.

I never really got into role-playing games. The only reason I ever played any D&D at all is because I had a couple of friends who were into the game for all of about five minutes, so I played the game with them just because it was the thing to do. I found the whole business arduous and more than a trifle silly. Attention-challenged as I am, I could never compel myself to slog through D&D's interminable rule books, or to grasp the myriad bits of arcane lore from which the game evolved. Plus, the multisided dice confused my prosaic, doggedly concrete sensibilities.

About the only part of the game I enjoyed was creating the characters. In fact, somewhere in my files I have shreds of an epic fantasy novel populated entirely with heroes I came up with during my momentary flirtation with D&D — sword-slinging warriors with names like Raldraxx and Pandrill and Skylodon, who teamed up to battle an evil wizard known as Traver Morninglight. It didn't take me long to figure out that I was no Robert E. Howard, much less a J.R.R. Tolkien.

I did like writing funny songs about the various forms of eldritch creatures that inhabited the D&D universe. You'd be amazed at how many hilarious, even ribald rhymes one can weave using Kobolds, Orcs, and Gelatinous Cubes.

Or perhaps you would not.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Seeing the light at last

I was totally bummed to learn of the death yesterday of guitarist Jeff Healey.

Blinded in infancy by a rare form of retinal cancer, Healey battled the deadly disease throughout his 41 years of life.

During that time, he also made some spectacular music. His 1988 album, See the Light, combined Healey's unique guitar stylings — he played with the instrument lying flat across his lap, and strummed it sideways — with his raw, blues-edged vocals.

Viewers of late-night cable remember Healey's appearance in the B-movie classic, Road House, in which the hard-rocking musician was featured as Cody, the leader of the title establishment's house band. Healey's musical numbers were the best thing about that improbable, yet oddly compelling, little piece of cinema magic... unless you're into Patrick Swayze's sweat-sheened pecs. But that's not how I roll.

In recent years, Healey had gravitated toward jazz, releasing a string of well-received albums in that genre. (Uncle Swan's favorite: the 2006 release It's Tight Like That.) His latest recording, however, reportedly marked a return to his blues-rock roots. Mess of Blues will be released next month, and you've gotta know I'll pick up a copy.

Jeff Healey leaves behind a wife, two children, and a legion of fans, among whom I'm proud to be counted.

Rest in peace, blind man.

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