Friday, May 30, 2008


If you hang out here at SSTOL very often, you've probably heard me mention that I grew up in a military family. My father served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, of which I was around for the last 15. Although my dad's work had nothing to do with aviation — he was a carpenter by trade, and later, a building inspector — in that environment, I couldn't help but become interested in military aircraft, and the lore and memorabilia surrounding them.

That little history lesson helps explain my boyhood fascination with nose art.

For those of you unfamiliar with this phenomenon, please be assured that nose art has nothing to do with human noses, nor any art created using or appliedthereto. Nose art refers to decorative, often fanciful designs — squadron insignia, logos, cartoon characters, pinup girls, sometimes combinations of two or more of these elements — painted on the fuselages of military aircraft. The term "nose art" derives from the fact that these designs were usually affixed to the forward part (that is, the nose) of the plane.

Although the earliest examples are as old as military planes themselves, nose art became ubiquitous in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, and the U.S. Air Force (the separate service created from the USAAF in 1947) during the Korean conflict. In reality, the origins of nose art can be traced to the elaborate figureheads that adorned sailing ships in ancient times.

A couple of years ago, while browsing a few Web sites displaying photos of nose art, I had a brainstorm: Wouldn't it be cool if someone created a gallery of nose art-style pinups featuring comic book superheroines from the 1940s? Given my twin affections for nose art and characters from the Golden Age of comics, it seemed as though I might be just the man to spearhead such a project. I patted myself on my metaphorical back for dreaming up this brilliant concept.

Then I more or less forgot about it.

Until a few months ago, when the subject arose during an e-mail exchange with my good friend and fellow comic art collector, Damon Owens. Damon, who shares my enthusiasm for the neglected heroes and heroines of comics' past — his incredible collection of commissioned art contains countless homages to the Golden Age — thought the nose art theme had genuine merit. Our discussion reminded me of how excited I had been about the concept when first I thought of it.

So, I began considering artists I might enlist (no pun intended) for the project, which I nicknamed "Bombshells!" As fate would have it, as I was pondering, I received an e-mail from Dan Veesenmeyer, a talented "good girl" artist with a retro feel. I pitched the concept to Dan, we kicked around a few ideas, and Dan chose four Golden Age heroines for his initial creations. Bob Almond — known in Comic Art Friday circles as the man who puts the "King" in "inking" — readily agreed to embellish Dan's pencil drawings.

Thus, the first Bombshells! were born.

And what better way to kick off the Bombshells! theme than with that symbol of all that's good and female about these United States, Miss America?

Miss America — not to be confused with the beauty pageant of the same name, although Miss A. could certainly have competed — arrived on the scene in Marvel Mystery Comics #49, in late 1943.

Madeline Joyce acquired the powers of flight and superhuman strength through one of those bizarre pseudo-scientific mishaps favored by Golden Age comics writers — she was struck by lightning. What with a war on and all, Madeline donned a red costume with a star-spangled shield on the chest to become Miss America. She appeared steadily in both Marvel Mystery and her own eponymous series until 1948, by which time the initial excitement over superheroes had run its course.

Miss A. also served time as a founding member of the All-Winners Squad, Timely Comics' (which morphed into Marvel Comics by the early 1960s) first attempt at a superhero team.

Our second Bombshell! features one of the more cleverly named heroines of the Golden Age, Liberty Belle.

Liberty Belle — in civilian life, Elizabeth "Libby" Chambers — debuted in Boy Commandos #1 (cover date, Winter 1943). Her powers, which included great strength, speed, and stamina, derived — in true Golden Age fashion — from a mystical connection with the actual Liberty Bell. Whenever that venerable American icon is struck, Libby receives a rush of adrenaline that fuels her powers. (As you might suppose, this necessitated Libby hiring an operative in Philadelphia who could tap the bell whenever she needed to leap into action — presumably, without said operative being arrested for mishandling a historical landmark.)

In the modern era, Libby's daughter Jesse wears her mother's former costume and code name (after a few years of operating under the handle Jesse Quick), and has inherited her mom's powers — which she can exercise without needing a recharge from the grand old gong.

We'll look at a couple more Bombshells! next week.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Now go do that voodoo that you do so well

At the risk of alienating SSTOL regular Scott, who was just chiding me about all the talk of death around here...

The great Harvey Korman has passed on.

It would be impossible to discuss Harvey Korman's contributions to comedy without starting with The Carol Burnett Show, where he shone as the leading sketch comic in Burnett's repertory company. Korman paired especially well with Tim Conway — almost every week, a sketch on the Burnett show would devolve into barely restrained hilarity as the two veteran comedians cracked one another up in front of a live audience. Korman won four Emmys — and was nominated for an additional three — for his work on Carol Burnett.

For me, though, Korman will live forever as Hedy Lamarr — "That's HEDLEY!" — okay, Hedley Lamarr, the scheming villain of Mel Brooks's nonpareil Western spoof, Blazing Saddles. Korman steals pretty much every scene in which he appears, breathing joy into his over-the-top portrayal of a conniving government official hell-bent on stealing a tiny frontier hamlet out from under its residents so that he can make a killing building a railroad through the site.

As Lamarr, Korman is at turns pompous, vain, agitated, simpering, serpentine, and pure evil, but he is never not funny, not for even a millisecond of screen time. It's not the kind of acting that wins Academy Award nominations — despite Korman's plea for same during the film's denouement — but I guarantee that no one who's ever seen Blazing Saddles can hear the name "Hedy Lamarr" without hearing Korman's exasperated "That's HEDLEY!" from deep within the cerebral cortex.

Korman delivered numerous other hysterical performances, especially in Brooks-directed films. He was a masochistic psychiatrist in High Anxiety; a slick French politician, the Count de Monet, in History of the World, Part I; an asylum superintendent who becomes a reluctant vampire hunter in Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Given that Blazing Saddles is my favorite cinematic comedy, and one of my five favorite movies of any genre, it's his role in that film that will keep Harvey Korman fondly etched in my memories.

Rest in peace, Hedy Lamarr.

"That's HEDLEY!"

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Whistle stop

The name Earle Hagen may not ring a bell when first you hear it. But if you were watching television in the 1960s and '70s — or if you're a fan of TV Land or Nick at Nite — you're familiar with his work.

The composer of numerous TV theme songs and scores, Hagen died yesterday at the age of 88.

Hagen's theme music résumé reads like a list of Nielsen ratings all-stars from back in the day: I Spy (for which Hagen won an Emmy), That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mod Squad, Eight is Enough, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., and most memorably, The Andy Griffith Show, which featured Hagen whistling a happy tune as Andy and Opie head off to the ol' fishin' hole.

In addition to his extensive television work — it's estimated that his music appears in more than 3,000 episodes — Hagen also wrote scores for dozens of motion pictures, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He and cowriter Lionel Newman were nominated for an Academy Award in 1961 for scoring another Marilyn Monroe classic, Let's Make Love.

Even if he had never composed a note for the screen, either large or small, Hagen's place in musical history was secured when he wrote (with bandleader Ray Noble) the jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne" in 1939. Practically every jazz musician active in the past seven decades has covered Hagen's soulful, Ellingtonesque riff.

Earle Hagen's passing gets me to thinking...

Whatever happened to TV theme songs?

At one time, you couldn't have a successful TV show without a catchy theme. Sometimes, the theme music was infinitely better than the show it introduced. Everyone remembers Henry Mancini's theme from the '50s detective drama Peter Gunn, which still pops up in movie and TV show soundtracks to this day. Anyone recall the show itself? That's what I thought. (Another example: T.H.E. Cat, an otherwise forgettable mid-'60s show starring Robert Loggia as a reformed — yet conveniently named — cat burglar, had a wicked cool jazz theme by Lalo Schifrin that I can hear reverberating in my skull even now.)

When I was but a wee lad, I used to collect TV themes on my little reel-to-reel tape recorder — you whippersnappers will have to look that one up — and a cheap microphone I would hold in front of the speaker of our Zenith console set. In between songs, I'd throw in introductory patter in the mold of the AM disc jockeys I idolized — Casey Kasem and Wolfman Jack. (Look, I was an only child in a military family that moved every year or two. I learned self-entertainment skills early in life.) Who knew then that TV theme songs would one day go the way of... well... reel-to-reel audio tape?

Of course, there's a reason for the decline in the art of TV themes: It's called money. Those precious 15 or 30 seconds that would otherwise be wasted on a throwaway musical trifle can be sold to the highest-bidding advertiser, instead of offering attention-deficient viewers an opportunity to grab a snack or relieve themselves. When TV shows use themes these days, they're usually established pop hits (the CSI franchise's obsession with classics by The Who, to cite but three), not custom ditties designed to establish the program's unique mood.

Earle Hagen may have died only yesterday, but, sad to tell, the TV theme songs he loved died long before.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Roll, Waves!

Nice to see that my old school, Pepperdine University, is once again in the hunt for the College World Series, the national championship of NCAA Division I college baseball.

The Waves will begin regional competition on Friday at Stanford University's Sunken Diamond, in a regional that also includes Arkansas (Pep's first-round opponent) and first-time tournament qualifier UC Davis. You can check out the entire tournament bracket here. The University of Miami is seeded Numero Ono in the nationwide double-elimination playoff.

Pepperdine has a long and storied baseball tradition, having won the CWS title in 1992 under Andy Lopez, now the head coach at the University of Arizona. Roughly two dozen future major leaguers have come through the Pepperdine system, including current San Francisco Giants pitcher Noah Lowry, Arizona Diamondbacks starter Dan Haren, and 1986 National League Cy Young Award winner Mike Scott.

Yours truly played a microscopic role in Pep's proud baseball history, as a member of the Waves' radio broadcast team during the 1980 and 1981 seasons. I wouldn't be surprised if there's an ancient air check tape of one of my calls gathering mildew in a desk drawer somewhere — the highlight of my otherwise inconsequential stint as a play-by-play announcer was a no-hitter thrown by a Pepperdine hurler named Bob Iezza.

Pepperdine hadn't yet developed into a baseball powerhouse in those days. However, the '80-'81 squad's star catcher, Bill Bathe, did eventually make the major leagues, playing briefly for both Oakland and San Francisco. In fact, as a backup for the Giants, Bathe hit San Francisco's only home run during the ill-fated "Earthquake World Series" of 1989.

During our Pepperdine days, Bill Bathe's car once served as my personal ambulance. My girlfriend at the time prevailed upon a mutual pal — the Waves' center fielder, and Bathe's roommate — to borrow Bill's ride and rush me to the hospital during a severe bout of food poisoning. The last I heard, Bathe was a fire department captain and paramedic in Tucson, Arizona. Perhaps his tangential connection to saving my life helped frame Bill's future career path. If so, my existence is justified.

Here's hoping that the 2008 Waves enjoy abundant success in the upcoming tournament.

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Monday, May 26, 2008


If you do nothing else this Memorial Day, go read Frank Schaeffer's blog post entitled "A Memorial Day Speech Obama Should Give."

I wish I'd written that.

If you have time to do one other thing this Memorial Day, pause for a moment to reflect upon the sacrifice made by the men and women who have given all to help preserve our most important liberties, as defined under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
If we don't have those five freedoms, we are nothing.

And can we end the madness in Iraq, already... please?

Uncle Swan says: Enjoy your Memorial Day!


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Say "Good night," Dick

Dick Martin, the goofier half of the '60s comedy team Rowan and Martin, has said his last "Good night, Dick."

For those of you too young to remember the Summer of Love, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In broke many of television's most hallowed taboos when it debuted on NBC in January 1968.

Laugh-In was the first primetime network series to leap full-bore into the world of cutting-edge political humor and sexual double entendre, and it did it all with a loosey-goosey formlessness that owed more to the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and psychedelia than any traditional variety or comedy program that preceded it.

At the center of the insanity stood straight man Dan Rowan and his happy-go-lucky foil Dick Martin, standing about looking dapper in their tuxedos, tossing off urbane one-liners while Goldie Hawn gyrated in a bikini.

Those were the days.

After Laugh-In played out the string in the early '70s, Rowan and Martin went their separate ways. Dick Martin showed up frequently as a celebrity panelist on game shows like Hollywood Squares and Match Game — TV programs that capitalized on the new openness in bawdy humor that Laugh-In pioneered.

At the same time, Martin was building a second, less visible but no less creative, career behind the camera as a director. He helmed dozens of episodes of situation comedies, from Newhart to Sledge Hammer! and everything in between.

Early in Laugh-In's run, Rowan and Martin seized their blossoming fame and rushed out a theatrical comedy called The Maltese Bippy (after one of the innumerable catchphrases Laugh-In spawned, "You bet your sweet bippy"). Modeled on the Universal Studios horror-comedies of Abbott and Costello, the film featured Dan and Dick matching half-wits with vampires and werewolves, and chasing busty young women. (Martin eventually caught one — he married former Playboy centerfold Dolly Read.) I remember sitting with friends in the base theater at Iraklion Air Station on the Greek island of Crete one Saturday afternoon, watching the duo cavort.

Fans will recall that at the conclusion of every Laugh-In episode, Rowan (who died of cancer in 1987) would turn to his partner — who, in typical fashion, had usually just spouted some inane commentary — and utter the magic words, "Say 'Good night,' Dick." To which Martin would respond, grinning with daffy glee into the camera, "Good night, Dick."

Good night, Dick.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Never too late to Pollardize

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to a genuine legend of the comic book medium, artist Gene Colan. The man whom Stan Lee dubbed "Gene the Dean" is one of comics' most distinctive stylists, due to his instantly recognizable sweeping, swirling linework and shadowy textures.

Colan worked on numerous titles during his 60 years in the industry, including memorable stints on Dr. Strange and Iron Man for Marvel Comics, and Wonder Woman (a seemingly unlikely choice, but it worked) for DC. Colan's legacy, however, was secured by his artistic contributions to three vastly different Marvel books: the superhero series Daredevil, the updated horror saga Tomb of Dracula, and Steve Gerber's wildly satiric Howard the Duck.

Recently, Colan's wife Adrienne announced that the great artist is suffering serious health complications related to liver failure. Like many old-time comics veterans, Colan didn't make a fortune at his craft. In the absence of health insurance, Gene and his family are struggling to pay his rapidly mounting medical bills.

Comics historian Clifford Meth is coordinating a benefit auction to which dozens of comics professionals and fans have contributed. If you have a few extra simoleons in your pocket, the Colans would, I'm certain, appreciate anything you might care to bid. (I don't know why Clifford didn't call the project "Simoleons for Colan." I would have.)

Occasionally someone asks me, "What's your favorite piece in your entire comic art collection?" My usual answer is, "The piece I commissioned most recently." Truth to tell, there are some perennials that would top the list, even though I've owned them for years. But here's a recent addition that will likely find its place among my all-time greatest loves.

Keith Pollard was one of the pencilers in comics whose work I most enjoyed, beginning in the late 1970s and continuing for the next two decades. Of the many artists who took stylistic cues from the late, great John Buscema — in my opinion, among the three or four finest comics artists ever — Pollard comes the closest to channeling Big John's unique amalgam of heroic power, majestic scope, and superlative anatomy in the classical model.

During his years at Marvel, Pollard worked on every major character from Spider-Man to the Fantastic Four, the latter of which he drew for two classic runs a decade apart. His most memorable run may have been on Thor, on which Keith was the regular penciler from 1979 to 1982.

When I heard recently that Keith Pollard was accepting commissions after a lengthy stretch away from comics, I could scarcely restrain my giddy glee. (If you've ever seen my giddy glee, you know it isn't pretty.) You can see in the drawing above that Keith's creative chops remain as sharp as ever, as evidenced by his stunning rendering of mace-swinging superheroes Thunderstrike (a Thor spinoff whose adventures Pollard drew in a pair of 1994 issues) and Hawkman (whom I'm not sure Keith had ever drawn before).

But wait! There's more!

Among Keith Pollard's most triumphant additions to comics lore were the 300 or so character model sheets he created for The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Master Edition, from 1991 to 1993. (EDIT: As noted in the comments, I originally misstated the date of this edition. Thanks to Bob Almond for keeping me on my toes.) The assignment reflected Pollard's talent for drawing practically every significant (and many not all that significant) Marvel hero and villain with equal aplomb. Joe Rubinstein, an inker likewise skilled at handling a broad diversity of characters, garnered the job of finishing Pollard's hundreds of pages.

When I saw Keith's dazzling addition to my Common Elements theme, I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to reunite this incredible artistic team. Joe, who's done several commissions for me previously, readily agreed to the proposal. The results, I believe, speak for themselves.

Yep... giddy.

Did I mention that I actually own a couple of those original Pollard and Rubinstein Official Handbook pages? Indeed I do. This one features bionic private detective Misty Knight...

...while this one depicts Battlestar, one of Captain America's many sidekicks.

My third OHOTMU page retains the raw Keith Pollard pencils (Joe Rubinstein inked a blueline copy of this page for publication) of Drax the Destroyer.

Pollard and Rubinstein: No wonder they called it a Master Edition.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. (Do a good deed for a worthy recipient this weekend — check out the Gene Colan benefit auction.)

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Like Grant took Richmond

The Dean of Bay Area newscasters has hung up his TelePrompTer.

Last night, Dennis Richmond — the longtime anchor of KTVU-2's Ten O'Clock News — signed off for the final time. Dennis spent 40 years at KTVU (the Bay Area's FOX affiliate, and a major independent station for decades before FOX), the last 32 of which saw him anchoring the area's lone "early" newscast with gravitas and aplomb.

As news anchors go, Dennis was solidly old-school. He rarely cracked wise, offered political commentary, or indulged in tabloid fluff from the anchor chair. In the immortal words of Jack Webb, Dennis stuck with "just the facts, ma'am."

His female co-anchors — and they were always female, beginning with Barbara Simpson in the late '70s, who gave way to Elaine Corral in the mid-'80s, who in turn stepped aside for Leslie Griffith in the late '90s, before perky Julie Haener snatched the job two years ago — came and went (mostly as they crept toward middle age, because that's how the broadcasting business goes), but Dennis remained constant, every night offering his sober and elegant delivery of the day's critical stories.

I would never hope to switch on the television and hear that World War Three had erupted. But if it had, I'd have wanted Dennis Richmond to be there to break the news, in his rich, reassuring baritone.

Now, when the Big One drops, I'll have to settle for Frank Somerville. Not that there's anything wrong with Frank — he's a fine reporter and anchor in his own right. But no one is Dennis Richmond.

Heck, they already named an East Bay city after the man.

Bon chance, Mr. Richmond. Thanks for all the news, good and bad. May your retirement be long, healthy, and fulfilling.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

See Wolves, be Wolves

Congratulations to our hometown scholar-athletes, the Sonoma State University Seawolves, whose baseball squad won the NCAA Division II West Regional this past weekend.

On Saturday, the Seawolves will make their first appearance in the NCAA Division II Baseball Championships, taking place this year at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, Illinois — home of the Gateway Grizzlies of the independent Frontier League.

That Sonoma State has become something of a small-school athletic powerhouse is no small source of amusement to me. I can recall when, in my long-ago high school days, the university barely dabbled a toe in the competitive waters, in keeping with its bohemian, "Berkeley North" atmosphere. Back then, SSU was derisively known throughout the California State University system as "Granola State," a refuge for aging hippies and their college-age progeny. The primary campus sports in that era were Frisbee and spliff-rolling, not necessarily in that order.

Over the years, as SSU gained more traditionally focused administrative leadership, its sports programs expanded and improved. Longtime NFL star lineman Larry Allen garnered national attention while playing at SSU (the school dropped football after Allen's departure, to focus on baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, and tennis), and the Sonoma State women's basketball team is a perennial contender in the NCAA Division II tournament.

The SSU team mascot also underwent a transformation. Originally, the university's athletic teams were nicknamed Cossacks — a nod to Sonoma County's Russian heritage, still in evidence today via such local landmarks as the Russian River and the town of Sebastopol.

Eight years ago, someone at long last picked up a history textbook, only to discover that the real-life Cossacks were bloodthirsty invaders who raped and murdered the female citizens of the communities they ransacked, and who collaborated with the Nazis in their anti-Semitic reign of terror during World War II.


After much public sturm und drang, the SSU administration changed the team nickname to Seawolves, in honor of Jack London's novel The Sea-Wolf, whose author lived out his final years in nearby Glen Ellen. Anyone who's ever read London's book knows that its title character is a vicious, brutal individual not unlike those Cossacks of old, but in this illiterate age, progress is progress.

Best of luck to our young Seawolves as they contend for collegiate baseball glory. Jack London would be proud.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

R.I.P., Rory Root

I'm saddened to hear about the sudden passing of comics retailer Rory Root earlier today.

Rory was the owner of Comic Relief, an exceptional comics shop in Berkeley. I had occasion to drop in at Rory's store a few times over the years, and was always impressed with both the merchandise selection and the congenial staff.

My more frequent interactions with Comic Relief, though, came at local comic conventions. A browse at Rory's beautifully merchandised booth was always an essential part of my con experience.

As previously mentioned in this space, this past February at WonderCon, Comic Relief was the only retailer selling copies of Mark Evanier's eagerly anticipated new book, Kirby: King of Comics, which had been published that very week. Through what I understand were herculean efforts on his part, Rory managed to score 80 copies of Mark's book, and arranged with Mark to sign the book for those who purchased it.

I'm thrilled to own one of those 80 copies. Rory personally dug it out of the shipping box in order to sell it to me, whereupon Mark graciously affixed his autograph to the flyleaf. Kirby's favorite inker, Mike Royer, likewise signed my book as we were waiting together to attend a panel discussion about the book.

I'll cherish my autographed copy of Kirby: King of Comics always... and I won't forget the gentle bear of a guy who made it possible for me to own it.

My thoughts and prayers are with Rory's family, friends, and staff.

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Sign of the Apocalypse: Blackbyrd

This morning, West Virginia's senior U.S. Senator, 91-year-old Robert C. Byrd, formally endorsed Barack Obama for President.

Robert Byrd... who six decades ago was the Exalted Cyclops of his friendly neighborhood klavern of the Ku Klux Klan.

Robert Byrd... who in the 1940s opposed the integration of the U.S. military, saying, "I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side."

Robert Byrd... who actively campaigned against civil rights legislation throughout the 1960s.

Robert Byrd... whose state handed the all-over-but-the-shouting Hillary Clinton campaign a 41-point victory in its Democratic primary just a week ago.

That Robert Byrd.

In announcing that his superdelegate vote will be cast for the junior Senator from Illinois, Byrd said:
I believe that Barack Obama is a shining young statesman, who possesses the personal temperament and courage necessary to extricate our country from this costly misadventure in Iraq, and to lead our nation at this challenging time in history. Barack Obama is a noble-hearted patriot and humble Christian, and he has my full faith and support.
Robert Byrd said that?


This settles the reality — if all of the other overwhelming evidence fails — that when Obama speaks of himself as the candidate of change...

...he's not just whistling "Dixie."

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

What I sacrifice for my music

Performing with the third-ranked men's a cappella chorus in the world is a mighty awesome avocation.

Every now and then, it conflicts with my other avocations.

For example, today (and tomorrow too, for that matter, but Sundays are always out for me anyway) is Super-Con, the second of the Bay Area's two huge annual comic book conventions. For a comics fanatic, and especially an original comic art collection, a con of this magnitude is as close to nirvana (the state of spiritual bliss, not the grunge band fronted by that guy who blew his brains out) as it gets. Last year at Super-Con, I picked up several amazing new commissions for my gallery.

This year, I'm singing.

Today, the two Northern California divisions of the Barbershop Harmony Society mount their regional competitions in beautiful downtown Stockton. (Remember Mudville, in the poem "Casey at the Bat"? That's the place. Yes, I'm excited too.)

My chorus, Voices in Harmony, will be one of 17 choruses in the contest, which also will showcase 24 male quartets. It's our first step toward next year's International competition, as well as our major tune-up for this year's International, coming up the first week of July in Music City USA. (That's Nashville, Tennessee, for the benefit of the culturally impaired among us.)

To all of my artist friends accustomed to welcoming my commission dollars at Super-Con each year, I'll miss you. I will especially miss acquiring fresh examples of your work to salivate over for years to come. Some of you I'll catch up with at WonderCon next February. Don't injure your drawing hands before then.

Although part of me regrets skipping the con, my heart knows the score. When I've gotta sing, I've just gotta sing. There is no substitute.

As I read on a T-shirt once...

Singing is life. Everything else is just details.

(Did you order your tickets yet for Voices in Harmony's upcoming concert, on Saturday, June 7, in San Jose? If not, you're ten steps behind all the cool kids, buckaroo. Score yourself some ducats today — it's the right thing to do.)

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Crazy from the heat

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of Will Elder, one of the founding artists of MAD Magazine, who passed away this week at the age of 86.

Elder's manic cartooning and incredibly detailed panels helped set the tone for generations of MAD artists to follow. After departing MAD, Elder and writer-artist Harvey Kurtzman created the popular Little Annie Fanny comic strip for Playboy. (Not that I would know anything about that...)

Our sincere condolences to Mr. Elder's family and fans.

Looking at SSTOL this morning, I realize that I have been — as my daughter KM would put it — a total slack-job about posting this week. It's not that I haven't had anything to write about. For one thing, the television upfronts took place this week, when the various broadcast networks unveil their schedules for the fall season. I'll get to our customary overviews next week.

This week, it's just been too dad-blamed hot.

When the mercury tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as it has here in Wine Country each of the past two days, my creative focus melts.

If only I had the power to alter the weather... my favorite Marvel mutant Ororo Munroe, code name Storm.

Storm could lower the temperature to a balmy and tolerable 78 degrees with a simple wave of her hand.

With a thought, Storm could summon a gentle, cooling breeze to waft away the oppressive heat.

Man, I wish Storm was here.

Because it sure is hot.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Time for your singout, America

Now that David Archuleta's father Jeff has been booted from the American Idol set due to his obsessive stage-motherish antics (not to mention his rearranging of one of the songs his son performed on the show, resulting in hefty royalties payouts by Idol's producers)...'s Uncle Swan's Top Five Additional People Who Need to Be Voted Off Idol, and Soon:

5. Randy "Not Michael's Little Brother" Jackson. I love Journey as much as the next '70s holdover, but seriously, it's time for Randy to hit the bricks. Even though "The Dawg" is the only Idol judge with legitimate musical credentials (you're not still clinging to the illusion that Paula actually sang "Straight Up" and "Cold Hearted Snake," are you?), his inane repetitions of the same tired clichés every week wore out their welcome at least three seasons ago. It ain't workin' for me any more, Dawg.

4. Ryan "I'm Too Sexy for My" Seacrest. Two words: Seacrest? Out. Get over yourself, Gel Boy.

3. The instigator of the weekly Ford Motor Company "pimpmercials." Look, I understand economics. I know that Ford blows a ginormous chunk of change every week to have the surviving Idols lip-synch and grimace to some stale pop tune. I realize that those funds are, in large measure, responsible for keeping the show on the air. But if I wanted to watch abysmal musical theater, I'd buy a ticket to a local high school production, or the nearest theme park. I don't need these camp comedies beamed into my living room. Oh, and Ford? Try making some cars you don't have to pimp.

2. Every celebrity mentor who hasn't had a Top Ten pop hit this millennium, or who can recall the Kennedy administration firsthand. Is it any wonder that young viewers are deserting Idol in droves, when the producers' idea of hip, happening musical guests includes Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, and Andrew Lloyd Webber? How did the show turn into AARP Idol all of a sudden?

1. Paula "Putting the Coca Back in Cola" Abdul. Enough already with the insipid, rambling, pharmaceutically fueled commentary, already. If I have to endure one more outburst of Paula's torturous Amy Winehouse imitation — or another cellophane-sheer denial by Seacrest of what every American with a television set or Internet connection can see and hear with his or her own God-installed sensory apparatus — I'm going to fly to Hollywood and sniff Paula's Coke tumbler myself.

Get to stepping, the lot of you.

And take Little Archie and his dad with you.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Grand salami time!

On this date in 1961 — a year with special significance for me, given that I spent the majority of it bouncing about in a pool of amniotic fluid — San Francisco native "Diamond Jim" Gentile of the Baltimore Orioles became the first player in major league baseball to hit grand slams in consecutive innings. Gentile smacked a total of five bases-loaded round-trippers in that storied season — during which Roger Maris also broke Babe Ruth's previously unassailable single-season home run mark — setting an American League record that held up for 26 years.

Speaking of grand slams, feast your baby [insert appropriate eye color here]s on this, the latest addition to my Common Elements comic art commission series.

Common Elements commissions are like Forrest Gump's mom's box of chocolates: You never know what you're gonna get. Often, the artist simply draws his or her best representation of the two characters I've assigned. That's an excellent outcome in itself. On other occasions, the artist will go beyond the characters themselves, and create a unique milieu in which to set the figures. That, of course, is even better.

Every now and then, an artist will push the concept's envelope and come up with a scenario that I never would have anticipated, much less thought of myself. Steve Carr (best known for his early '90s run on Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan) does that here.

In the immortal words of Dave Niehaus, the voice of the Seattle Mariners, "Get out the mustard and rye bread, Grandma... it's grand salami time!"

Steve's cleverly conceived, magnificently rendered tableux features sometime-Avenger, sometime-Defender Moondragon gazing into a reflecting pool that reveals J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter of Justice League fame. Or is it J'onn gazing, and Moondragon the reflection?

Every picture tells a story, but this one suggests an entire miniseries.

If you look closely, you'll see that Steve notated the black areas (with tiny x's) for the piece's eventual embellisher — legendary inker Joe Rubinstein, who generously made the connection between Mr. Carr and me. Joe is currently working on another of my Common Elements commissions — just wait until you see that beauty — and will (I hope) tackle Steve's astonishing creation sometime later this year.

About the two "smooth operators" in Steve's drawing...

Moondragon — in civilian life Heather Douglas, daughter of the man who was later transmogrified into Drax the Destroyer — first appeared in the Marvel Universe during my favorite period of superhero history, the so-called Bronze Age of Comics. (You know it better as the 1970s.) The Bronze Age was a freewheeling, "throw it against the wall and see whether it sticks" period, and Moondragon combined many of the motifs popular at the time: She had connections to alien civilizations, possessed powerful psionic powers, was a skilled martial artist, displayed an antiheroic moral ambiguity, and wore a scanty costume. (Steve Carr drew her here in an outfit from a later period in her career, when she covered up a little more.) Her bald pate helped her stand out among the other, usually abundantly tressed, superheroines of the day.

The Martian Manhunter's origins reach back much further, to the earliest days of DC Comics' superhero revival of the 1950s. (We call it the Silver Age, in comics history parlance.) J'onn J'onzz was basically a bald, green-skinned Superman, the last survivor of an alien race. He wielded most of the Man of Steel's superhuman powers, plus more besides — he was a shape-shifter and a telepath, too. Instead of kryptonite, J'onn's Achilles heel was fire. A founding member of the Justice League of America, the Manhunter from Mars has been closely connected with the JLA throughout its existence.

My thanks to Steve Carr for knocking this commission out of the park, with all the bags juiced.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bring me the head of Brian Dunkleman

Has this been the most tedious American Idol season in history, or what?

When this year's Top Twelve were announced — what seems like a geological epoch ago — I commented that this field seemed like the least interesting in the show's seven-year history.

Things haven't improved since.

But at least we're down to the final three, and that's something. No more false starts by Brooke White, no more dead-fish stares from Kristy Lee Cook, and as of last night, no more agonizingly soporific performances by Jason "I'm Too Sexy for My Dreadlocks" Castro.

Not that what we're left with is all that much better.

Syesha Mercado is the surprise pick in the remaining trio. I didn't expect Syesha, who's been in the bottom tier more consistently than almost anyone else this season, to survive anywhere close to this late in the contest. For my money, she's the most listenable of the three singers left, and she's not hard to look at, either. But she's never shaken her penchant for selecting ill-fitting material to perform, nor has she developed much of an engaging stage personality. As I sit here typing, I can't recall the title of a single song Syesha has sung. That's not a good sign. She'll probably be the next to depart.

David Archuleta — "Archie," as I like to call him — was everyone's early-season favorite to be anointed American Idol #7. The kid does zip for me personally. He sings pretty well, in a high school musical sort of way, but I can't say much else in his favor. He's awkward, uncomfortable to watch, and indefinably creepy in a manner that makes me fear for his household pets. If there's a market for Archie's recordings, I can't imagine of whom that market would consist. He doesn't have boy-band sex appeal, rock star charisma, or Broadway vocal power. As I said at the beginning, though, in this tepid field, I would still not be surprised if he won.

David Cook is, to my mind, the least of the three evils left. Alt-rocker Cook, who has outlasted the other Cook and one of the two other Davids in the Top Twelve, could best be described as Chris Daughtry-lite. I'm not sure why anyone would want Daughtry-lite when the real Daughtry is alive and well and appears to be doing just fine with his career, but there you go. Cook is the most talented of the Big Three, both in vocal skill and in ability to adapt effectively to a variety of material. Were I among the teeming millions who vote each week — and I can assure you that I am not — Cook would be the one whose digits I'd dial.

Looking at and listening to Syesha and the two Davids, I'm stunned that Idol — still the most popular show on television, despite a ratings slump this season — couldn't come up with a more potent final trio. Where's the Kelly Clarkson in this group? The Fantasia Barrino? The Taylor Hicks, for that matter? (Speaking of Taylor, I believe the last time I saw his face on Idol, it was backstage, on the side of a milk carton.)

In most of the show's previous seasons, even the second- and third-place contestants would have performed dervish-like circles around any of these three. Just imagine such Idol also-rans as Clay Aiken, Kimberley Locke, Katharine McPhee, or the aforementioned Daughtry competing against this motley crew.

This snooze-inducing contest would already be over.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Death by Frigidaire

I nearly dropped my cup of Butter Pecan when I read this...

Irv Robbins, cofounder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chain
, has departed for that giant freezer in the sky.

Robbins launched his tongue-chilling empire in 1945, when he opened his first ice cream parlor in Glendale, California. A few years later, he teamed up with his brother-in-law Burton Baskin to start the company that bears their names. (They flipped a coin to determine whose name came first.)

Baskin-Robbins quickly became the pioneering frozen dessert franchise operation, paving the way for franchising efforts in other areas of fast-food service. That "golden arches" thing, to name but one.

When his partner Baskin died in 1967, Robbins sold the company to United Fruit Co., although he continued on the payroll for another decade or so. These days, Baskin-Robbins belongs to the parent corporation of Dunkin' Donuts — is that a match made in hypoglycemic heaven, or what? — and boasts more than 5,800 shops internationally.

Although Baskin-Robbins' trademark is "31 Flavors," they've offered over a thousand varieties of ice cream at one time or another, from the perennial vanilla and chocolate to seasonal specialties (for example, our household favorite, Baseball Nut, a vanilla-raspberry-cashew concoction that resurfaces every spring) to such promotional gimmicks as Shrek'd Out Chocolate Mint and Casper's Red, White and Boo.

Here's a sweet irony: Robbins's son John, the author of such books as Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution, and Healthy at 100, is one of the world's most prominent advocates of veganism and natural, plant-based foods.

That's right, Junior: Dad paid for three squares a day, plus clothing, shelter, and college education, by selling frozen sugar and butterfat. And the man lived to be 90. Meanwhile, you're jumping on camera with Morgan Spurlock to bad-mouth your father's legacy.

King Lear said it best: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"

I'll raise a double scoop of Nutty Coconut to that.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Sometimes I feel like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford

Just a warning to the world...

Uncle Swan is cranky today.

The kicker is that I have absolutely no reason for being cranky. I had a spectacular weekend.

On Friday, KJ and I dined at my favorite lunch joint, then caught the premiere of Iron Man at our local cineplex. If you didn't already contribute to this Marvel-ous film's $100 million gross domestic earnings, get off your rusty rump and go see it. Even if you're not into the whole comic book superhero thing, go see it. KJ loved it, and I don't know anyone less enthused about comic books than she is. Robert Downey Jr. might be that rare actor who picks up nominations for major film awards from a role in an action blockbuster. Best of all, Iron Man restores to its title character all of the charm and joie de vivre that Marvel Comics has leached out of Tony Stark during the past decade.

I can't be cranky about that.

On Friday evening, and all day Saturday, I was with my chorus at our annual intensive workshop. In addition to the guidance of our nonpareil musical staff, led by one of the most respected choral conductors on the planet, we were whipped into championship froth by our legendary choreographer and presentation coach. I sweated off enough salinity to replenish the Salton Sea, and I'm a better man for it. If we continue to build on everything we developed this weekend, we'll be a force to be reckoned with in Nashville on the first Friday in July.

I'm definitely not cranky about that.

Yesterday's sermons both went about as well as I'm capable of presenting them. I struck the chords I wanted to strike, with both cogent argument and appropriately engaging delivery.

No crankiness there.

This morning's coffee was excellent. The bagels were awfully good, too. We have delicious tamales and guacamole awaiting consumption for Cinco de Mayo dinner.

Nothing to be cranky about about there, either.

In today's mail, I got a stunningly attractive new T-shirt from Woot. Also, on Saturday, I received a long-awaited artwork I'd commissioned months ago, and was beginning to think the artist had forgotten about. (He hadn't, and it's gorgeous.) So I can't even be cranky at the United States Postal Service. And if you can't be cranky at the USPS, you can't be cranky, period.

I have no idea what I'm cranky about.

But it doesn't change the fact that I'm cranky.

So watch yourself, buster.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Amazin' armor

Tomorrow — Saturday, May 3, in case you're stumbling into the room a trifle late — is Free Comic Book Day.

Your participating local comics retailer will have on hand a selection of comic books from which you're welcome to choose, absolutely free of obligation. (If your retailer is really cool, he or she may even allow to pick up more than one.) The choices run the gamut from superheroes — the kind you've actually heard of, most likely — to kids' comics featuring Gumby or Disney characters, to Japanese manga. Such popular franchises as Superman, Archie, Transformers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and X-Men are represented in this year's offerings. You'll even find some stuff that's next to impossible to categorize. Whatever your taste in fantasy fiction or humor, you'll find something to like.

Do yourself a favor. Whether you're a long-time comics reader, or you haven't read a comic in a long time, or you've been on Earth for a long time and have never read a comic, swing by your participating local comics retailer tomorrow and snag a free comic or (if your retailer is really cool, like my local comic shop is) two. When you find one that interests you, take one more step: Ask your retailer, "If I like this, what else do you have that I might enjoy?" Then let her or him show you some options.

If you have a kid or two to accompany you, take 'em. What could it hurt? Worst case scenario: The kid gets a free book that ends up in the recycling bin. (You recycle, right?) Best case scenario: You've opened a door for a young person to experience the joys of reading, and visual storytelling, and sequential art appreciation.

Your Uncle Swan thinks that's not such a bad outcome.

Speaking of this weekend...

Tony Stark makes you feel
He's a cool exec with a heart of steel.
As Iron Man, all jets ablaze
He fights and smites with repulsor rays!
Amazing armor, he's Iron Man!
Ablaze in power, he's Iron Man!

Yes, the cinematic version of Iron Man premieres today, as you certainly know unless you've been living among the Amish for the past several months.

How excited am I about this? Excited enough to do something I never do — go to a theater on a film's opening day. Everything I've seen and heard about the film suggests that Iron Man will rank among the better cinematic representations of superheroes in recent years. The trailers have looked incredible, and Robert Downey Jr. couldn't be more perfectly cast as industrialist-slash-playboy Tony Stark, the man inside the famous red-and-gold supersuit.

As I related on a previous Comic Art Friday, Iron Man was one of my favorite Marvel heroes in my earliest days of comics reading. I still own the little hand-carved Pinewood Derby slot car, hand-painted gold with red accents, that I made nearly 40 years ago when I was a Cub Scout, that I nicknamed Iron Man.

Over the years, my enthusiasm for old Shellhead has dimmed considerably. Marvel's editorial department has seemed bent of late on destroying everything that made the character interesting and likable, in favor of portraying him as a ego-consumed, monomaniacal chump. I liked Tony a whole lot better when he lived in acute awareness of his own humanity, and didn't think he ruled the world.

Still looking forward to the movie, though!

An Iron Man film and a Free Comic Book Day... could a weekend get any better than this? Actually, it can.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony (currently ranked third internationally by the Barbershop Harmony Society) begins its annual weekend retreat — we call it an Advance, because we never "retreat" — this evening, in preparation for this year's competition cycle. Three days of grueling work, but great fun nevertheless. (Have I mentioned yet that our first concert of 2008 is only a month away, on Saturday, June 7? Great seats still available!)

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Babbling about Brooke

This caught my attention on a slow news May Day...

In an interview scheduled to air next Tuesday, television legend Barbara Walters reveals to Oprah Winfrey that, back in the 1970s, she engaged in a long-running affair with Edward Brooke, who at the time was (a) a Republican U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, (b) married, and (c) African-American.

Brooke hasn't been (a) since 1978. I believe he's now (b) to a different woman than the one to whom he was (b) at the time that he was getting jiggy with the ABC newswoman. So far as I know, he is still (c).

When I first heard about this, my first reaction was probably the same as yours: Barbara Walters?

Senator Brooke: You were one of the 200 or so most powerful men in the United States government. You could probably have shacked up with any woman you chose — notwithstanding the far less enlightened racial climate of 30-odd years ago. And you picked Barbara Walters?

Dude, what were you thinking?

Then again, as a quick survey of the couples strolling your local shopping mall will confirm, there's no accounting for taste.

And here all this time, I just thought Ed Brooke was goofy because he was a Republican.

Setting his questionable preferences in women aside for the moment, Ed Brooke's an interesting guy, from a historical perspective. The first African-American to be popularly elected to the U.S. Senate — and the only black Senator elected for more than a quarter-century after he took office in 1967 — Brooke was a black Republican in an era when pretty much the only black Republicans anyone could name were Pearl Bailey and Ed Brooke.

As one might expect from a Massachusetts Republican, Brooke occupied the liberal wing of the GOP, to the degree that such exists. (In fact, the citizens of Massachusetts haven't elected another Republican to the Senate since Brooke was defeated for a third term by future Democratic Presidential candidate Paul Tsongas.) Brooke often butted heads with fellow elephant Richard Nixon, leading the rejection of a trio of Nixon nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, including that of racial segregationist (and closeted homosexual, not that either Nixon or Brooke knew at the time) G. Harrold Carswell in 1970. To his credit, Brooke was one of the first Senators to publicly call for Nixon's resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Earlier in this decade, Brooke was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a double mastectomy. He has since campaigned actively in support of breast cancer awareness, among men in particular. Bush 43 awarded Brooke the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.

At the time of his defeat in 1978, many political observers blamed Brooke's loss on the nasty and highly publicized divorce he and his then-wife underwent during his second Senatorial term. Now that Barbara Walters has 'fessed up to Oprah, maybe we know what all the fuss at the Brooke house was about.

Although we may never know how Baba Wawa hooked up with a man whose surname she couldn't pronounce.

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