Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tigers and jaguars and coffee, oh my

This week's Hump Day is being fueled by Starbucks Organic Sumatra-Peru Blend.

Mmm... tasty.

This coffee has a nicely rounded flavor — slightly sweet, with a hint of chocolate in the finish. It also possesses one of the loveliest bouquets I've savored in quite a while, more herbal than floral or earthy. Must be that organic thing.

I'm not sure why there's a drawing of two cats — that's actually a Sumatran tiger and a Peruvian jaguar — on the bag. My barista assures me that this stuff is 100% cat poop free.

When I think of Sumatran animals, I think of orangutans. I've had coffee made by orangutans, and trust me — their brewing skills leave something to be desired.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

CSI: Can't Sleep Intoxicated

CSI star Gary Dourdan got up close and personal with real-life law enforcement this morning in sunny Palm Springs.

Dourdan — recently reported to be exiting his role as crime scene investigator Warrick Brown at the end of the current season — was napping in his car when rousted by the Palm Springs gendarmerie. A search of Dourdan's vehicle turned up heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy, and various prescription drugs.

Way to go out on a high note, Gary. (Heh... "high note.")

I was sorry to hear that Dourdan was departing CSI, even though his character's screen time has been dwindling rapidly over the past few seasons. And I'm certainly sorry to hear about his current troubles, and hope the guy gets himself straightened out. He's a talented actor.

But seriously... he couldn't afford a hotel room? I know Palm Springs is a high-rent district, but Dourdan's gotta be making a chunk of change after eight years on television's top-rated drama.

I remember the first time I noticed Dourdan — costarring alongside James McCaffrey (in between stints on that classic '90s Knight Rider rip-off, Viper) in a short-lived series called Swift Justice. McCaffrey played Mac Swift, your stereotypical ex-cop, ex-Navy Seal hardcase turned private eye, while Dourdan tagged along as Mac's stereotypical streetwise police detective associate, Randall Patterson. It sounds exactly like a few dozen other shows you've seen before, but Swift Justice was a reasonably entertaining example of this well-traveled genre. McCaffrey and Dourdan shared a cool, intense Crockett-and-Tubbs sort of chemistry that made the show's handful of episodes worth watching.

Another smattering of Gary Dourdan trivia: Dourdan and his CSI costar Marg Helgenberger previously paired up in an unsold series pilot entitled Keys. The 1994 TV movie (it still turns up on cable now and again) was produced and directed by John Sacret Young, for whom Helgenberger had worked in her breakout television role, in the Vietnam drama China Beach.

Not to be confused with china white, Mr. Dourdan.

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What's Up With That? #63: So that's what they mean by "Down Under"

And we Americans think our politicians are insane.

Troy Buswell, a member of the Australian Parliament and the leader of Western Australia's Liberal Party, tearfully admitted the veracity of rumors that he smelled the chair of a female staffer shortly after she vacated it.

Apparently, Mr. Buswell did inhale.

According to The Australian, in 2005:
Mr. Buswell allegedly lifted the woman's chair and started sniffing it in front of her, and later repeated the act in front of several staff members.
The paper further notes that last year, Buswell snapped a staff member's bra strap during a "drunken escapade," and frequently made "inappropriate comments" to female colleagues.

In an emotional public statement, Buswell acknowledged that his behavior was "unacceptable." He had no ready explanation for the white cotton underpants seen dangling from his hip pocket.

So far, there is no confirmation of the report that Buswell's favorite '70s radio hit was "Driver's Seat" by Sniff 'n' the Tears.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Barry Zito: The new Steve Blass

The Giants have a fever...

...and the only prescription is less Barry Zito.

If I were Giants upper management — and I'm not — here's what I would do with my $126 million pitcher who has become incapable of getting batters out.

Zito would suddenly develop a "mysterious injury" — let's call it hypertrophic frakulation of the distal metatarsus — that would earn him a slot on the 15-day disabled list and a two-week vacation.

As Zito's hypertrophic frakulation began to resolve in mid-May, I'd send him to the Giants' Class A minor league club in San Jose, where he could work himself back into self-confidence by throwing his legendary curveball past 20-year-old kids fresh out of junior college.

At the same time, I'd bring in a couple of experienced pitching gurus from outside the Giants organization — at least one of whom could teach the knuckleball — to help Zito find a more effective way to set up his eminently hittable 84 m.p.h. "fast" ball.

Once Zito had developed some semblance of competence and a fresh optimism about major league life, I'd return him to the Giants starting rotation — not as the Number One starter, where he routinely faces the opposing team's best pitcher, but as the Number Five starter, where he would routinely face the weakest link in the opponent's rotation.

Then, I'd pray for a miracle.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

In the still of the night

I just read, over at John Neal's A Cappella News, that Ronnie I has passed on.

Ronnie I (his last name was Italiano, but I never heard anyone refer to him as anything but Ronnie I) was a legend in a cappella music circles as the world's leading proponent of old-school, 1950s-style R&B vocal harmony — the kind of music you might call doo-wop.

You didn't call it that in front of Ronnie I.

Ronnie I didn't just love vocal harmony, he actively promoted it with his heart and soul. He owned a record store in New Jersey called Clifton Music, where he sold both old and new vocal harmony recordings. Clifton Music also recorded artists who might otherwise have remained unknown and unheralded, and provided an outlet for aficionados of the style to hear them. For many years, Ronnie hosted radio shows featuring his beloved music on several New York area stations. He founded the United in Group Harmony Association (UGHA), an organization joining vintage-style vocal groups and their fans. Ronnie I and UGHA hosted frequent concerts that brought these musicians together.

I never met Ronnie I, but from all the stories I heard about him from within the a cappella community, I felt as though I knew him. He had a reputation for being crusty, hard-nosed, and single-minded. But no one doubted his passion for the music he championed.

Back in the '90s, Ronnie I was the director of the New York regional of the Harmony Sweepstakes, the national a cappella championship. If I recall correctly, he judged the finals, which are held at the Marin Civic Center on the first Saturday in May, on at least one occasion. (KJ and I had a 14-year streak of attending the finals broken two years ago, when she was too ill to go. I missed last year, and will miss again next Saturday, because my chorus now schedules its annual retreat on that weekend.)

My a cappella library boasts at least a couple of Clifton Music CDs, including a magnificent recording by a long-defunct quintet called Charm, whom Ronnie I considered one of the greatest R&B vocal groups in the history of the style. I'll have to dig that one out and give it a spin in Ronnie's memory.

Ronnie I succumbed following a long fight with liver cancer. His legacy will live on... because the music he loved will never die.

On a cheerier note, I understand from John Neal's blog that Sony Entertainment — my old friends via Jeopardy! — just purchased the rights to develop a reality show centered around the Harmony Sweepstakes, for which John — who has owned the Sweeps for the past dozen years or so — will be serving as a consultant. Congratulations, John!

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Friday, April 25, 2008

On my office walls

A frequent visitor to our Comic Art Friday feature inquires...
You own a ton of art! Do you have it all hanging on your walls? Or do you keep it in storage someplace?
I'm glad you asked, friend reader.

At any given moment, the overwhelming majority of my comic art collection resides in archival-safe portfolios for convenient storage. I use Itoya Art Profolios, which I purchase from Corrick's, an excellent art and office supply shop in downtown Santa Rosa. I maintain separate portfolios for Common Elements and my various character-specific themes — my Wonder Woman collection fills one entire 48-sleeve book, and Common Elements now requires two — plus additional books for my non-theme pieces. (Most of my Itoyas are the 14" x 17" size. I have one 13" x 19" book that accommodates a handful of pieces taller than 17".)

I keep my portfolios in a moisture-proof sliding bin next to my workstation, where I can easily access them for a quick flip-through whenever I get the urge. Art is, after all, for viewing.

Speaking of viewing...

My office wall houses five poster-size frames, into which I rotate various pieces from my collection as whim strikes me. Actually, that's only four-fifths true. One of the five frames is home to the sole artwork that I keep on permanent display — Cully Hamner's dramatic and beautiful Mary Marvel:

I keep this drawing on the wall all the time for two reasons: (1) It's one of my favorite character-themed pieces; and (2) it's huge (16" x 20"), and won't fit into any of my portfolios. (Thanks, Cully!)

Next to Mary is the one frame that's oriented lengthwise, to accommodate art drawn in landscape profile. Currently in that space is "Titans," Steve Mannion's Common Elements creation featuring Thanos and Saturn Girl:

The corner immediately behind my left shoulder, as I'm seated at my workstation, holds two frames that face each other across a 90-degree angle. Today, those frames display Michael Bair's stunning representation of the Valkyrie...

...and "Fox Hunt," Tony DeZuniga's wonderfully composed Common Elements pairing of Zorro and Vixen, commissioned at WonderCon 2008.

The remaining frame is my "showcase" spot — on a narrow wall by itself, it's a high-visibility location that I reserve for some of my most special pieces. It's often the place where I memorialize artists who have recently passed away — works by the late Mike Weiringo and Jim Mooney have been displayed here during the past several months.

Today, it's home to a gorgeous collaboration by two artists who are very much alive and active, penciler Frank Brunner and embellisher Geof Isherwood. Geof took Frank's rough pencil sketch of one of comics' classic couples, the Scarlet Witch and the Vision, and expanded upon it to create this amazing piece of finished art.

Thanks for stopping by my office. I hope you enjoyed the tour!

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

My stone gas tank runs dry

The final Train has left the station.

The 22nd Annual Soul Train Music Awards, scheduled for later this year, have been canceled due to overwhelming ennui on the part of both the public and the potential honorees.

Which should come as no surprise — Soul Train, that venerable television dance party, itself vanished from the airwaves two years ago.

Back in the day, Soul Train was, in its own hyberbolic words, "the hippest trip on television." It was a Saturday institution — impossibly limber dancers shaking what their mamas gave 'em to the latest R&B hits.

But what seemed ineffably cool in the swinging '70s had pretty much worn out its trendiness by the early '90s, even though the program chugged along on fumes for another decade or so. Train's creator and longtime host, Don Cornelius, bailed out a few years back, rendering the enterprise almost completely pointless.

In its time, though, Soul Train delivered a weekly dose of unstudied funkiness to TV sets across America. Everyone who was anyone in rhythm and blues — and its temporal offshoots soul, disco, and hip-hop — appeared on the Soul Train stage to lip-synch their latest releases. And was there a cool kid anywhere who didn't secretly long to take just one booty-swiveling boogie down the Soul Train line? Come on — you know you did.

Those days, alas, are forever gone.

Just the other day, as I was loading music onto my new mp3 player, I dug out my copy of Soul Train Hall of Fame, a three-CD box set released in 1994, encompassing 59 legendary R&B cuts made popular during the first 20 years of Soul Train's run.

A few of the track selections are questionable: Why, for example, was the Commodores' sappy ballad "Three Times a Lady" chosen, instead of the funk classic "Brick House"? Why is Prince's early career represented by the fun but lightweight "I Wanna Be Your Lover," instead of, say, any of the singles from the Purple One's most influential album, 1999? In the main, however, the collection provides a vivid, mostly danceable snapshot of the music that Soul Train pioneered.

From this abundance of musical treasures, the following are the ten that most make me want to get up off'a that thang.

1. "Cold Sweat" — James Brown. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business gets busy.

2. "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)" — Parliament. Could we get George Clinton to run for President, instead of the other one?

3. "Jungle Love" — Morris Day and the Time. In a word: O-E-O-E-O.

4. "Bad Girls" — Donna Summer. Say what you will about the Queen of Disco, but she could rock a groove like nobody's business.

5. "(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again" — L.T.D. One of the hottest jams ever recorded by a band named after a Ford sedan.

6. "I'm Every Woman" — Chaka Khan. Maybe not every woman, but woman enough.

7. "What's Love Got To Do With It?" — Tina Turner. Come on, Ike, answer that question.

8. "Word Up" — Cameo. Try to stand still when this one comes on. I dare you.

9. "O.P.P." — Naughty By Nature. Yeah, you know me.

10. "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" — Lou Rawls. Forget side one of Led Zeppelin 4, guys. This is the track you put on when you want to impress the ladies.

Somewhere out there, Don "No Soul" Simmons is smiling.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Welcome to Matzo Search 2008

If you thought Where's Waldo was challenging, try finding matzo this Passover season.

There's a nationwide dearth of matzo — the unleavened bread that forms the foundation of the Jewish Passover observance — and it's especially critical here in the Bay Area. Thousands of our Jewish neighbors have been hitting local supermarkets and specialty stores in search of the dry, flat, cracker-like substance, and are coming up empty.

That's a problem, because matzo is the only bread that observant Jews can eat during the Passover season, which began at sundown on Saturday and continues throughout this week.

By all reports, a combination of factors contributed to the matzo shortage. Manischewitz, one of the largest U.S. suppliers of kosher products, recently shut down production of certain matzo varieties at its New Jersey plant due to problems with a new oven. At least two major retailers, Costco and Trader Joe's, decided not to carry matzo for Passover this year. Many other markets, including some that target the Jewish community specifically, simply underestimated the demand, and didn't stock up in time.

According to this morning's New York Times, the shortage is being felt all over the country. The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that the Bay Area, which is home to more than a quarter of a million Jews, has been affected most acutely.

The supermarket where we shop regularly had a scant two boxes of matzo remaining on an endcap of Passover staples yesterday morning. I wouldn't be surprised if both have been snapped up by now.

For what it's worth, our church uses matzo for communion service every Sunday, so we always have a few boxes on hand. (We buy a huge case at a time — because it contains no yeast, matzo keeps pretty much indefinitely if left in the package.) Not all matzo, however, meets the particularly stringent kosher requirements for Passover. Since we don't purchase our matzo with those criteria in mind — we're only concerned that it's unleavened, which all matzo by definition is — I'd have to check the label to see whether the stock we have is Passover-worthy. (If it were, and you really needed a box, I could probably hook you up.)

If you're keeping Passover this week, I hope you've got all the matzo you need. And if you've got any to spare, my friend Neilochka over at Citizen of the Month has a terrific recipe for matzoh brei, an omelette-style dish made with eggs and matzo.

Hag Pesach Sameach!

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Poker's candle in the wind

Brandi Rose Hawbaker, the Britney Spears of poker, has folded her hand. Permanently.

She was only 26 years old.

Or somewhere in that vicinity.

The tragic act occurred more than a week ago, apparently, but news is only now getting around on the poker blog circuit. Brandi's suicide draws the curtain on a roller-coaster ride that seemed bizarre and outlandish even within a milieu that attracts — and thrives on — the bizarre and outlandish.

Like most poker aficionados, I first became aware of Brandi when she led the field for the first several days of Festa al Lago V, a 2006 World Poker Tour event. Although she ended up finishing a respectable 35th in the tournament (two places ahead of Jennifer Harman, widely considered the best female poker player in the world), Brandi's run as chip leader — coupled with her photogenic appeal and exhibitionist personality — sealed her date with demi-celebrity.

Attractive young women with actual talent come along in professional poker about as often as vegans dine at the Outback Steakhouse, so Brandi's advent on the scene set testosterone-fueled tongues wagging across the Internet. Sad to tell, Brandi's newfound fame came packaged with tales of self-destructive and antisocial behavior that rivaled those of Hollywood's tabloid darlings. These stories spawned persistent whispers about untreated mental illness, supported by online testimony from people close to Brandi.

The whispers, it seems, spoke at least a modicum of truth.

Neil Young once sang, "It's better to burn out than it is to rust." I'm not certain that I agree with him. Brandi Hawbaker, whether by conscious choice or karmic twist, apparently did.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Free your mind, and your spirit will follow

It's Common Elements time again, here on Comic Art Friday.

For the benefit of any newbies in the audience, Common Elements is my series of commissioned drawings spotlighting unrelated comic book characters who are connected by some — you're way ahead of me — common element.

Today's featured item brings together a couple of comics' favorite redheads: Jean Grey (originally codenamed Marvel Girl, later called Phoenix) of the X-Men, and Emily "Lia" Briggs, better known by the superhero handle Looker. The artist charged with depicting this tempting twosome is Dave Hoover, one of the industry's most adept practitioners of "good girl" art.

Beyond their striking red tresses, Jean and Lia share a pair of more significant commonalities:
  • Both Phoenix and Looker possess psionic powers — comic-book-speak for a skill-set that includes telepathy (the ability to read others' thoughts) and psychokinesis (the ability to affect matter using the power of the mind).

  • Each also underwent a dramatic metaphysical transformation. In a now-legendary 1980 X-Men storyline, Jean morphed into the psychotic, supremely powerful Dark Phoenix (as anyone who saw the film X-Men: The Last Stand knows, although the events surrounding the Dark Phoenix were altered significantly for the movie). Emily, in a 1993 Outsiders tale, was bitten by a vampire and ultimately became one herself.
As for our artist, Dave Hoover has penciled dozens of comics since the mid-1980s. He's most closely identified with runs on DC's Wanderers and Starman, and Marvel's Excalibur, Night Thrasher, and Captain America. He's also worked extensively in the animation field.

During his two-year hitch on Captain America, Dave cocreated Cathy Webster, also known as Free Spirit, Cap's female protégé. I always enjoyed the character, and I keep hoping that someday someone at Marvel will revive her and give her a major plotline in which to develop.

While I'm waiting, I can admire this terrific Dave Hoover-drawn page from Captain America #438, which features Free Spirit and her partner, Jack Flag, in action. Check out Dave's splendid figure work in the top panel, and that gorgeous close-up of Cathy at bottom right.

As it happens, Free Spirit also makes an appearance in one of my Common Elements commissions, alongside Mister Miracle (whose real name is Scott Free — see the connection?).

This dynamic duo is magnificently rendered in tonal pencil by the incredible Geof Isherwood.

Here's a smidgen of historical trivia: Free Spirit was not Captain America's first woman partner.

Everyone remembers Cap's skein of male backups, including James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes (who in current Marvel continuity has become the new Captain America); Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon; Lemar Hoskins, a.k.a. Battlestar; and the aforementioned Jack Flag. In the late 1940s, however, Bucky was replaced at Cap's side by a young woman called Golden Girl (whose real name was Betty Ross, not to be confused with the Hulk's longtime paramour). One of these days, I'll work her into a Common Elements scenario, too.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore"

Sad news for the Famous Monsters of Filmland crowd: Hazel Court has died.

Yes, for real this time.

Hazel Court was an English actress who enjoyed a lengthy, if largely unspectacular, career in motion pictures and television. In the early 1950s, Court discovered her true calling, acting in low-budget horror films. She appeared as the female half of a young couple who move into a haunted house in 1952's Ghost Ship. This led to her legendary turn in the 1954 classic Devil Girl from Mars — Court played the ingenue, not the title character, in case you were confused. She was again cast as the innocent young heroine in Hammer Films' seminal The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, and a scream-screen star was born.

In the early 1960s, Court costarred in several films produced by Roger Corman's American International Pictures, based on the twisted works of Edgar Allan Poe: The Premature Burial, in which Court played the duplicitous lover of scholarly Ray Milland; The Raven, which paired Court with a callow Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) opposite terror titans Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Peter Lorre; and The Masque of the Red Death, perhaps Corman's most memorably Poe-etic opus, and almost certainly the best picture in Court's filmography.

Although she wasn't, to be brutally frank, an accomplished thespian, Court was attractive in that stereotypically wan, upper-crust English sort of way. Her porcelain beauty — and impressive displays of quivering cleavage — lent a certain austere charm to the films in which she starred. Without question, her performances garnered her a minuscule yet dedicated coterie of devotees, as this comprehensive fansite demonstrates.

Some years ago, when I was writing reviews for DVD Verdict, I brandished my critical pencil at an MGM double-feature disk showcasing The Premature Burial and The Masque of the Red Death. You can check out my review of these two Roger Corman masterworks (*ahem*) here.

In an odd touch of irony, just as I sat down to memorialize Ms. Court this afternoon, this T-shirt arrived in my mailbox, courtesy of the good folks at Woot!

I can't imagine a more fitting tribute.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Enjoy your cruise, Mrs. Lincoln?

Here's an interesting historical juxtaposition...

On this date in 1865, Abraham Lincoln — our 16th President, Great Emancipator, and future star of the five-dollar bill — died, the result of an assassin's bullet that struck him the previous evening.

On this date in 1912, the "unsinkable" HMS Titanic — later responsible for the otherwise inexplicable popularity of Leonardo diCaprio and Celine Dion, and for the insufferable ego of James Cameron — sank, the result of an iceberg that struck it the previous evening.

What do we learn from this?

Be careful what hits you on the evening of April 14, because it could ruin an otherwise perfectly good April 15.

I hope that my friend Donna, who celebrated her [insanely large number deleted, to prevent public humiliation] birthday yesterday, didn't do anything last night that she's regretting this morning.

And if she did, I hope there's video.


Monday, April 14, 2008

What's Up With That? #62: Ain't no party like an Uncle Sam party

Pop diva Alicia Keys opines that gangsta rap was created by the United States government as "a ploy to convince black people to kill each other."

Umm... what?

I'm trying to envision a collection of Caucasian policy wonks holed up in a bunker in Washington, D.C. writing the material for N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton. The imagery just isn't working for me.

Even if we assume, for the sake of ludicrous argument, that shadowy figures at the Justice Department did in fact concoct the idea of gangsta rap, there's an element that I still don't comprehend:

How did the government persuade the performers who ostensibly began the gangsta rap phenomenon to begin recording this stuff?

Maybe the conversation went something like this...

FBI Guy: Hello, Mr. Ice-T. Thank you for meeting with us.

Ice-T: Whatever.

FBI Guy: Mr. Ice-T — may I call you Mr. T.?

Ice-T: Naw, man, that's the brother with the Mohawk and the bling. Just call me Ice.

FBI Guy: All right, Ice. Recognizing that you are a loyal American and a decent, law-abiding citizen, your federal government would like to make you the point man on a unique public relations project.

Ice-T: I'm listening.

FBI Guy: Your government is taking note of this hip-hop — do I have the term correct? — business that's all the rage with the young African-Americans these days. We believe there's a wonderful opportunity here to accomplish something very special for this country, and for the black community in particular, utilizing this exciting medium. And we would like for you to take a leading role.

Ice-T: What do I have to do?

FBI Guy: Our crack staff — no pun intended, Ice — has been composing some funky-fresh — did I say that properly? — lyrical material for the hip-hop genre, which we want you to record. We believe that if you were to make this material popular with the African-American youth, other performers would follow suit.

Ice-T: A'ight. Lemme see what you got. (Pause.) "Six in the mornin', police at my door..." Are you kidding me, man? (Another pause.) "Cop Killer"? What the [expletive deleted] is this?

FBI Guy: We realize that some of this material may seem — how should I put it? — extreme. However, it's our position that...

Ice-T: This crap has me advocating the murder of police officers! Man, some of my best friends are cops!

FBI Guy: I know, it sounds somewhat counterintuitive. But...

Ice-T: I can't record this. It'll incite people to violence. I'm a lover, not a "cop killer."

FBI Guy: Ice, are you familiar with the concept of reverse psychology? That's what we're going for here.

Ice-T: I don't know, man. This seems like crazy talk.

FBI Guy: This isn't crazy, Ice. It's your federal government at work. Some of the brightest minds in Washington are hard at work on this project.

Ice-T: Whatever. So what's in all this for me, man?

FBI Guy: International fame and a multimillion-dollar recording career, for starters.

Ice-T: You gotta give me more than that. I'll lose all my friends in the 'hood once they find out I'm working for The Man.

FBI Guy: How would you feel about a permanent costarring role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit?

Ice-T: Dick Wolf? I'm down.

FBI Guy: You're a true patriot, Ice.

Ice-T: Whatever.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

To know her is to fear her!

When last we convened for Comic Art Friday, we memorialized the passing of veteran comic book artist Jim Mooney, who left us on March 30.

I noted in that post Mooney's close association with one of my all-time favorite superheroines, Ms. Marvel. Thanks to one of those mental blocks that occur with alarming frequency in those of a certain age (ahem...), however, I neglected to mention that "Gentleman Jim" was one of the artistic cocreators of another of those great '70s heroines that I love so much: Jessica Drew, the original Spider-Woman.

Like many female characters of the Silver and Bronze Ages of comics, Spider-Woman existed primarily to establish a trademark on a distaff version of a popular male hero (i.e., Supergirl, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk). Of course, once you've created such a knock-off character, you actually have to publish her in order for the trademark protection to take effect.

Thus, Marvel Comics cranked out 50 issues of Spider-Woman's adventures, to resounding ennui from the comics-reading public. The company even produced a short-lived (16 episodes, aired in the fall of 1979) animated TV series recounting the exploits of the Arachnid Adventuress. Again, the mass audience remained unmoved. (Trivia: In the cartoon, Spider-Woman's voice was supplied by the legendary Joan Van Ark of Knots Landing fame, who today sports one of the most horrific plastic surgery visages known to humankind.)

All of which is too bad, really. Not only did Spider-Woman evolve into an intriguing character — despite the superficial thematic similarity, she really isn't very much like Spider-Man at all — but Jessica's eventual fading from the Marvel Universe in the early '80s spawned an opportunity for a new and improved Spider-Woman, Julia Carpenter, to appear.

The rationale for Julia's creation was even more shallow than Jessica's — Marvel wanted to trademark, in feminine form, the black-and-white costume Spider-Man acquired during the 1984 mega-event Secret Wars. Her single-mother-as-superhero backstory, however, was novel for its time, and added a welcome layer of emotional realism to the character.

Here's Julia in action, alongside the Justice Society's Mr. Terrific, in a Common Elements commission by Fables artist Lan Medina.

These days, the original Spider-Woman is back with a vengeance. Jessica's a prominent character in the current New Avengers title written by Brian Michael Bendis, and figures to play a major role in Marvel's latest crossover epic, Secret Invasion.

It's good to have her hanging around the Marvel Universe again.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

What's Up With That? #61: Worst Effen branding concept ever

Most people who know me at all well know that I don't drink alcohol.

Therefore, the following statement should not come as a surprise to anyone:

I do not want any Effen Vodka.

If you were thinking of giving me any Effen Vodka — say, as a token of esteem for a blog post well done — please keep your Effen Vodka to yourself.

And, while I respect your right to drink all the Effen Vodka you want (assuming that you're of legal drinking age in your jurisdiction), please don't drive after you've had your Effen Vodka. I don't want to see you injure anyone — including yourself — while under the influence of Effen Vodka.

I trust that I have made my position on this Effen Vodka as clear as... well... Effen Vodka.

Thank you.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Pike Place... is that near Boardwalk?

This morning's activity at SSTOL is powered by free coffee from Starbucks. Because you know your Uncle Swan's motto:

If it's free, it's for me.

In case you didn't get the memo, the New York Yankees of coffee are giving away free cups of their new Pike Place Roast today, starting at 9 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

I was the first patron to queue up at my neighborhood 'Bucks to claim my gratis brew. The friendly barista enthusiastically pulled a cup of Pike Place Roast for me, and didn't charge me a penny. (As it happened, my coffee bean supply was running low, so they got a sale out of my visit anyway.)

I'm giving the new blend a moderate thumbs-up. As coffees go, Pike Place Roast is on the milder, mellower end of the flavor spectrum, with chocolate as its primary undertone. It's a smooth, easy-drinking coffee, pleasant but unremarkable. Clearly, it's designed to be quaffed in mass quantities rather than savored. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

As a coffee connoisseur, I tend to favor a sharper, brighter element — like that of the Kenya I bought today — so Pike Place Roast wouldn't be my java of choice. But if you usually guzzle the standard Starbucks house blend, and you're looking for a subtle alternative, Pike Place Roast just might be your cup of coffee.

If you run down to your nearest Starbucks in the next few minutes, you can get a freebie dose and decide for yourself.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

Astronaut of the year (literally)

Just a few hours ago, NASA astronaut and biochemist Peggy Whitson achieved a noteworthy milestone:

She became the first woman in history to spend the equivalent of one full year in space.

Dr. Whitson — currently the commander of the International Space Station and its resident mission team, Expedition 16 — is nearing the conclusion of her second extended tour aboard the ISS. At this writing, she has logged slightly more than 180 days in space on her present assignment. Combining this mission with the 184 days, 22 hours, and 15 minutes Whitson spent aloft six years ago as flight engineer of ISS Expedition 5 (June 5 to December 7, 2002) gives the groundbreaking astronaut a grand spaceflight total of 365 days and change.

Whitson also holds the record for most spacewalks (Extra-Vehicular Activities, if you want to get all technical about it) by a female space traveler: six EVAs totaling 39 hours.

Last fall, when Space Shuttle Discovery's STS-120 team, under the command of U.S. Air Force Colonel Pam Melroy, visited the ISS, Dr. Whitson and Col. Melroy became the first two women to command active space missions simultaneously.

Dr. Whitson and her colleague, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, are scheduled to return to terra firma aboard Soyuz TMA-11 — the same craft that carried them to the ISS last October — on April 19.

We bid them a safe journey home.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Go down, Moses

Now that the man has shuffled off this mortal coil, I can admit this:

I'm a huge Charlton Heston fan.

Not the rhetoric-spewing, rifle-waving reactionary Heston of his later years in public life. And not even so much the more rational, compassionate Heston of earlier times, who marched alongside Dr. King and was an ardent, vocal supporter of civil rights long before it was socially acceptable. Although I did kind of admire that guy.

No, I mean the Heston of all of those classic Hollywood films. The man who stepped in front of a camera with those chiseled features, that piercing gaze, and that booming baritone, and wrestled the silver screen to the ground.

I loved that Charlton Heston.

The man had such intense, compelling presence that he, with his blond-haired, blue-eyed self, could play an endless string of Hebrews (Moses in The Ten Commandments; Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur; John the Baptist in The Grestest Story Ever Told), Latins (Mexican narco agent Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil; Spanish conqueror Rodrigo Diaz in El Cid), and Italians (Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy; Marc Antony in both the 1970 edition of Julius Caesar and the Heston-directed Antony and Cleopatra in 1972), and make you believe in them.

Heston's charisma was so palpable that he could remain concrete and genuine in the midst of the most embarrassingly hackneyed disaster film (Skyjacked, Airport '75, Earthquake, the submarine-sinking Gray Lady Down) or kitschy science fiction knock-off (The Omega Man — based on the same source material as the recent Will Smith epic, I Am Legend — or the insanely off-kilter consumerism-as-cannibalism future shocker, Soylent Green), and made you believe in those, too.

I mean, the man starred in an Aaron Spelling-produced soap opera so cheesy that it was actually named after cheese — the mid-'80s Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys — and he was even imposing and awe-inspiring in that. If you can shine in an Aaron Spelling production, you've got serious chops, my friend.

Of course, my favorite Heston turn was his role as time-warped astronaut George Taylor in the first two films in what eventually became the Planet of the Apes franchise. If Heston had never done anything in his cinematic career other than break into bitter tears before the ruined shell of the Statue of Liberty — one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the movies — or blow up the entire world with his bloody hand on the detonator of a doomsday bomb, his place in popular culture would be forever sealed. But of course, he did those things, plus all of the aforementioned as well.

What a monumental career.

It would be a shame if all that people remembered about Chuck Heston was the ultra-conservative political animal he became late in life. (Unless you're a rebel-yelling, monster-truck-driving, pistol-packing gun nut yourself — in which case, I guess that will be what you remember. And to that, you're entitled. Different strokes for different folks, as Sly Stone and Gary Coleman used to say.) The man left behind a treasure trove of unforgettable screen performances, to be savored for generations. Keep your paws off my DVDs, you d--n dirty ape! (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to tell Mr. Heston how much I enjoyed his cinematic oeuvre. I did, however, sit next to his daughter Holly during a course in American Political Humor at Pepperdine University one semester. (Nice girl. I lent her a ballpoint pen once. She returned it. I didn't use it again for at least a week afterward.)

Mr. Heston was 84, and had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for the past several years. I share the sorrow of his family, his friends, and his well-earned legion of fans.

(Pssst... Soylent Green is people. Pass it on.)

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

A real-life episode of Big Love

Here's an interesting juxtaposition of stories, headlined cheek-to-jowl on the front page at MSNBC:
"Mormons affirm new church leader"
right underneath...
"Standoff emerges at polygamist ranch"
Sort of goes from Brigham Young to dig 'em young, doesn't it?

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Gentleman Jim

Comics fans have experienced far too many sad times of late, what with such beloved and respected creators as Mike Wieringo, Steve Gerber, and Dave Stevens having passed away in recent months.

Unfortunately, the news isn't getting better.

Last weekend, veteran comic artist Jim Mooney left us. Mooney — known throughout fandom by the sobriquet given him by Stan Lee, "Gentleman Jim" — will be most remembered for his nearly decade-long run on Supergirl. By the time Mooney started his Supergirl stint, however, he had already been an industry fixture for almost two decades, and he was active in the field for more than 30 years after leaving the heroine with whom he was most closely identified.

Mooney's career in comics began in 1940 with Fox Publications, one of the myriad publishers in the then-burgeoning comic book business. He freelanced for several companies before landing at National Periodicals — more famous these days as DC Comics — in 1946, as one of the many uncredited artists who ghost-drew Batman under creator Bob Kane's byline.

(Historical side note: It's an ongoing source of humor among comics fans that while Batman appeared under Bob Kane's solo credit for decades, it's likely that Kane himself never drew so much as a single panel after the book's first several months. Instead, the art in Batman from the early 1940s through the mid-1960s was the work of such talented, albeit anonymous, artists as Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, Win Mortimer, Shelly Moldoff, and Jim Mooney. Stories about Kane's duplicity in assuming acclaim for other people's creative efforts run rampant. I once heard the late comics author Arnold Drake tell one about Kane's hiring a ghost artist to paint clown portraits, which Kane later signed and sold as his own work.)

In 1959, Mooney began illustrating the adventures of Supergirl, which appeared as the secondary feature in Action Comics. Mooney continued as Supergirl's primary artist until 1968. During this period, he also worked on such DC properties as Superboy and another personal favorite, Dial H for Hero, about a boy named Robby Reed whose magical dial transformed him into an incredible variety of superheroes — but rarely the same one twice. Mooney's charming, slightly cartoony style worked perfectly with these lighter-in-tone characters aimed at younger readers.

In the late '60s, Mooney moved to DC's rival, Marvel Comics, initially as the inker on Amazing Spider-Man. Several classic Spidey stories appeared during Mooney's run, as he was inking over the pencils of stalwarts John Romita, Sr. and John Buscema. I'm especially fond of the story arc that begins in Amazing Spider-Man #78, which introduces one of my all-time favorite Marvel characters: Hobie Brown, aka The Prowler. A few years ago, I was fortunate to purchase from Mooney this recreation of the cover of ASM #78, originally penciled by John Romita, Sr. with inks by Jim. This recreation is all Mooney, drawn in late 2004 when the artist was well into his 80s.

In addition to his Spider-Man work — including penciling the Web-Slinger's adventures in Spectacular Spider-Man and Marvel Team-Up — Mooney enjoyed memorable runs on several other books: Sub-Mariner, Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Omega the Unknown, and most notably (to me, anyway) Ms. Marvel. The combination of the longtime Supergirl artist and Marvel's blonde-tressed Woman Warrior (whose surname, Danvers, was borrowed from an alias once adopted by Supergirl) was sheer perfection.

In April 2005, Mooney was kind enough to allow me to purchase this clever creation, depicting a surprise meeting between the two heroines for whose adventures he was most renowned. It's a recreation of an earlier commission Jim drew for collector Michael Dunne.

Well into his golden age, Mooney continued to draw, both for publication and for private commissions. He was working on new series for the now-defunct Claypool Comics (Soulsearchers and Elvira) as recently as a few years ago.

Although I never had opportunity to meet Jim Mooney, I did correspond with him a few times and, as seen above, I bought a couple of his original artworks. He was unfailingly polite and kind — with each of the drawings I bought, he sent me an autographed print and a brief handwritten note of thanks. I had hoped to commission a piece from him, but after his beloved wife passed away a couple of years back, Mooney fell into ill health and cut back on commission projects. I wish now that I had moved ahead with my request, if only to let Jim know how much I appreciated his talents.

In a tribute to Mooney on his blog, News From ME, comics scribe and historian Mark Evanier speculates that Mooney may have been one of the most prolific artists ever to work in comic books — if not, in fact, the most prolific. That would not surprise me. For at least three-fourths of my 40 years of reading comics, there was scarcely a month when one could not pick up a new comic book that contained the work of Jim Mooney. Although perhaps not gifted with the creative genius of a Jack Kirby or the sheer brilliance of some of today's superstar artists, Mooney leaves behind a legacy of work that is staggering in both quality and variety.

Beside which, I've never heard or read a single negative word about the man. Given a career that spanned seven decades, that's a worthy testimony.

Rest in peace, Gentleman Jim.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

It's April Madness!

Over at The Nexus of Improbability, the Mysterious Cloaked Figure (or MCF, as I like to call him — he's the artist who designed the current SSTOL header graphic) is hosting a bracket-style popularity face-off between 16 of his favorite blogs. Your Uncle Swan is humbled to be included in MCF's Sweet 16.

Personally, I think comparing one blog to another is a bit like arguing whether thin crust is fundamentally superior to deep dish, or debating the merits of Star Trek: The Next Generation versus Deep Space Nine.

Since, however, this is all in good sporting fun, why not drop over to MCF's place and check out all of the contestants? You may discover at least one new favorite blog for your reading enjoyment.

And if you're inclined to toss your Uncle Swan a Milk-Bone, you'll find SSTOL in bracket slot #8.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Arranger, unlimited

I was saddened to read, over at John Neal's A Cappella News blog, that Gene Puerling, the legendary vocal artist, composer, and arranger, passed away last week.

Anyone who loves vocal jazz knows Gene Puerling's work. He first came to renown in the 1950s as founder, arranger, and musical director of the seminal vocal group, the Hi-Lo's. The Hi-Lo's (named for the group's top-to-bottom vocal ranges, as well as the strikingly disparate heights of its members) enjoyed enduring popularity until they parted company in the 1960s, though they reunited to record from time to time as late as the 1990s.

In 1967, Puerling formed one of the most amazing singing ensembles ever created: the Singers Unlimited. Using only four vocalists — tenor and former Hi-Lo Don Shelton, bass Len Dresslar, Puerling himself at baritone, and the incredible Bonnie Herman singing all of the female parts, sometimes as many as 30 in a single recording — pioneered multitracking at a time when almost no one in the recording industry outside of four guys from Liverpool was making music in that way. Puerling brought the Singers Unlimited together to record advertising jingles and commercials; however, the foursome also recorded a series of magnificent albums that stand as classics of vocal jazz.

The Singers Unlimited's A Cappella and Christmas are two of my favorite albums ever. You haven't fully appreciate all of the ways that human voices can be combined until you've heard the amazing harmonies of Puerling, Shelton, Dresslar, and Herman layered together on the Beatles' Michelle and Fool on the Hill.

Perhaps no other musician in the contemporary idiom lent as much to the art of vocal arranging as did Gene Puerling. Groups such as the Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices, and Take 6 owe their intricate approach to harmony to the work Puerling created for the Hi-Lo's and Singers Unlimited, as well as numerous other artists. His spectacular a cappella arrangement of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," written for and recorded by the Manhattan Transfer, won a Grammy in 1981. Puerling received a total of 14 Grammy nominations during his five-decade career.

I had an opportunity to meet Gene Puerling a few years ago, during one of his appearances as a judge at the finals of the Harmony Sweepstakes, the national a cappella championships. It was just a fleeting moment — we actually passed one another at the entrance to the men's room. (No, we did not shake hands.)

For fans of vocal music, Puerling leaves behind a tremendous legacy. It's fair to say that the contemporary a cappella movement would not exist without his influence — not, at least, in its present form and style.

You'll find an excellent interview with Puerling here. (Scroll about halfway down the page.)

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

I watched the news today, oh boy

Television news continues to spiral down the toilet.

Yesterday, CBS initiated a cost-cutting move by firing news reporters, producers, and editors at its owned-and-operated stations nationwide. At KPIX-5 in San Francisco, the cuts involved some of the Bay Area's most honored and most respected broadcast journalists: Emmy-winning reporters Bill Schechner, Manuel Ramos, John Lobertini, and Tony Russomanno, and veteran anchor Barbara Rodgers.

All five of these newspeople built impressive careers. Schechner has worked at several Bay Area stations since arriving here in 1972; he also enjoyed national prominence for several years in the 1980s as Linda Ellerbee's coanchor on NBC News Overnight, and as a correspondent and feature reporter for NBC Nightly News. Ramos and Rodgers have each been reporting local stories at KPIX for 28 years.

Within the broadcast industry, the complaint often raised today is that people — particularly tech-savvy younger people — no longer turn to TV for news, thus making news staffs expendable. What the bean-counters fail to comprehend is that TV news, especially in local markets, has become so fluff-filled and tabloid-oriented that it's ceased to be a credible source for journalism. A couple of years ago, our in-town station, Santa Rosa's KFTY, turned its news operation entirely over to amateurs from the community. The experiment devolved into a national joke.

KPIX used to respresent a bastion of solid, dependable journalism against the piffle floated by the Bay Area's NBC and ABC affiliates. I'm sad to see that philosophy dying an agonizing death at the hands of accountants and media consultants.

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