Sunday, June 29, 2008

Uncle Swan has left the building

As is often the case the first week in July, SSTOL will be closed for business through next Sunday.

With luck and a fair wind, I'll have exciting news to report upon my return.

Exciting to me, anyway. Your mileage may vary.

But then, I'm not accepting responsibility for your doggoned excitement.

Have a safe and happy Independence Day. I'll see you in seven.


Friday, June 27, 2008

It takes two, baby

One of the factors that makes comic book art unique among the traditional graphic arts is its collaborative nature.

When you view a painting, you are in most cases seeing the artistic vision and technical skills of a single creator. (That is, unless you're looking at a Thomas Kinkade, in which case you're probably seeing the uncredited work of some anonymous schlub toiling away for a pittance in some Third World backwater while the talentless hack who signed his name to the piece makes serious bank off the poor sucker's labor. But I digress.)

When you open a comic book, however — especially any comic book published by either of the two giants in the field, Marvel or DC — you're rarely viewing the work of a single artist. In most instances, there are four artists involved:
  • The penciler (sometimes spelled penciller by the illiterates in the production department), who draws the basic designs for each page in (you're way ahead of me) pencil.

  • The inker, who embellishes the pencil drawings in India ink — often adding detail and clarity not present in the penciler's original work.

  • The colorist, who adds all of the color (and, increasingly these days, computer-generated effects). This used to be done on paper with colored dyes; today, it's done almost exclusively in a virtual environment, using Photoshop or some similar program. In either case, the coloring is never done on the actual inked art. In the days when coloring was accomplished by hand with dyes, the work was done on photocopies called color guides.

  • The letterer, who inserts all of the dialogue and caption text, as well as the "visual sound effects." This, too, is now done mostly on computer, with specially created fonts.
On rare occasion, a single artist may handle two or more of these functions — some pencilers prefer to ink their own work, for example, and a few inkers also are adept at lettering. Still, in 90% of the mainstream comics you'd see on the rack at your local comics shop, each of these four jobs is done by a different artist. In many cases, the artists are working in studios in various locations around the globe, and don't even know each other personally.

Which is all the more reason to marvel (no pun intended) at the beauty and power of the art combining the efforts of these disparate creators.

In commissioned comic art, the process is much the same. Frequently, I will commission a pencil drawing from one artist, and later hire another artist to ink the piece. (I've yet to commission either color work or lettering, but many collectors do.) Often, there's no connection between the penciler and the inker. In fact, the penciler may never see how his or her original art was finished, unless he or she stumbles upon it here, or in my online gallery at Comic Art Fans.

Here's an instance, however, in which the penciler, although working independently of the inker who would finish the art, created the original with the talents of a specific inker in mind. The pencil drawing seen above emerged from the imagination of artist Steve Carr. At the time that I commissioned this piece, Steve knew that I intended to commission comics veteran Joe Rubinstein to ink over his pencils. The completed artwork at the beginning of this post shows a remarkable synergy between these two masterful talents.

As SSTOL regulars can attest, the redoubtable Mr. Rubinstein has inked quite a number of pieces for me over the past several years. Joe, in fact, did the very first inking job I ever commissioned — this sketch of DC's roguish hero from the 25th century, Booster Gold, drawn for me by Booster's creator, Dan Jurgens.

When I commissioned this drawing from Dan Jurgens, he had no idea that Joe would ink it. And yet, the attributes of the two artists meld together seamlessly, as if the entire piece had leapt from the same deft hand.

Pretty nifty, I'd say.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Smoke gets in your eyes

With all due respect to my many friends in the Los Angeles basin, air should not be visible.

But it certainly is here, these past few days.

Thanks to a raging wildfire next door in Napa County, we're experiencing a reversal of the opening lyrics to "California Dreamin'":
All the leaves are gray (with soot and ash)
And the sky is brown...
You can smell the smoke the instant you step outdoors or open a window. The particulate matter in the air is denser than discarded fliers on the Vegas strip.

Even though the fire has been contained as of this morning, it won't be thoroughly extinguished for some time. That means we won't be returning to our customary fresh air and crystal-blue skies in the immediate future.

I feel for my asthmatic neighbors.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

The class clown goes down

This paean to the late, legendary George Carlin will not include any words that you can't say on television.

(Although, to be accurate, two of Carlin's infamous Seven Words are now spoken on television with relative frequency, and as august a personality as Jane Fonda pitched out the four-letter word beginning with "C" on the Today Show just a few months ago.)

The immediate irony of the news about George Carlin's death (Carlin would mock me from the grave for using a euphemism like "passing") was that Cranky George videotaped his final HBO comedy special, It's Bad for Ya, here in Santa Rosa the first weekend in March. Even though the show was being taped locally, I settled for the live cablecast, since I already pay for the subscription. Now, I'm a little sad that I didn't go and pay homage to the great humorist while he was still with us.

I first became hooked on Carlin's comedy in my junior high school days. I still have my original vinyl copies of all of his classic albums from the '70s — Class Clown; FM & AM; Occupation: Foole; Toledo Window Box; An Evening with Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo; On the Road; plus 1981's A Place for My Stuff. Even now, I can rattle off many of those outrageous routines and rants verbatim. (I tend to bowdlerize them a trifle when I repeat them, but still.)

Carlin is often mentioned in the same breath with such fellow comics as Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, and Carlin's contemporary Richard Pryor because they all employed an abundance of profanity and risque subject matter. That is, in my view, a shallow evaluation of all four performers. Foxx's bawdy routines were "inside baseball," targeted at a specific audience that had few resources for uncensored comedy. Pryor used scatological language as a framework for sociopolitical commentary — as his two network television series demonstrated (especially the award-winning Pryor's Place, a Saturday morning kid's show), Pryor could be equally effective when he wasn't working blue. Bruce — who, in my plain-spoken opinion, wasn't the comedic equal of the others, despite his reputation as an innovator — threw out F-bombs as a way of needling the Establishment and giving voice his internal demons.

Carlin, though, liked to play with language. Profanities were his Lincoln logs, his Legos, his alphabet blocks. His "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" riff (from Class Clown), and its sequel, "Filthy Words" (from Occupation: Foole), were less about the words themselves than the concepts and mores that cause us to judge certain words as socially acceptable while deeming others taboo. A lot of Carlin's comedy was like that — a window into the mind of a man who thought a lot about why the world was the way it was, then found funny ways to talk about it. He was as brilliant an observational humorist as Mark Twain and Will Rogers were in their eras. As a stand-up comedian, he was second only to the nonpareil Pryor.

For me, George lost some of his mojo once he qualified for AARP membership. From the early '80s on, Carlin embraced his newfound persona as the angry old man a mite too fully, and his rancorous bitterness (especially on the topics of religion and politics) often overwhelmed the charming, albeit scathing, bemusement that marked his prime years.

That said, whenever he allowed himself to transcend his curmudgeonly stage character and simply wax poetic about the absurdities of modern life, Carlin was hilarious to the end. I had tears rolling down my cheeks at one point during his final special.

Today, I might shed one or two more, realizing that old George is gone.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Cat on a hot tin motorbike

It's officially summer — at least, it will be at 4:59 Pacific Daylight Time today — and we're already experiencing the effects here in Wine Country.

Yesterday, we topped the thermometer at 96 degrees. It's expected to be at least that hot again today.

This is why God created Otter Pops and cream soda.

If we're going to be sweltering, we may as well enjoy some white-hot comic art while we count the beads of perspiration dripping from our noses.

Debuting in 1941, The Black Cat was one of the more popular superheroines during comics' Golden Age. She was also one of the few female characters to headline her own book during that period. In civilian life, Linda Turner starred in Hollywood as a film actress and stuntwoman. She used the skills she gained in the latter field to battle crime as the Black Cat. Linda's costumed derring-do — which frequently involved her performing dangerous tricks on her trusty motorcycle — attracted favorable notice from entertainment reporter Rick Horne, who in true Lois Lane fashion never seemed to tumble to his dream girl's secret identity.

Numerous artists illustrated the Black Cat's adventures during her career, but she is most closely associated with Lee Elias, a talented draftsman whose work bore the unmistakable influence of Milton Caniff of Terry and the Pirates fame. Elias's original Black Cat pages remain popular with collectors today. In the 1960s and '70s, Elias returned to comics and drew a number of superhero, science fiction, and horror series, mostly for DC.

Our featured image of the Black Cat above springs from the pencil of James E. Lyle, whose work will be familiar to Comic Art Friday regulars. Although Lyle usually inks his own pinups, this particular piece was embellished by Bob Almond over a blueline scan of Lyle's pencil drawing.

Comics being the incestuous business that it is, a hit concept is always ripe for replication. The Black Cat was no exception. Her popularity spawned several imitators, most notably DC Comics' Black Canary. Indeed, the original Canary couldn't have been more of a Black Cat clone if she'd tried — both characters were motorcycle-riding martial artists who wore cuffed buccaneer boots. Not coincidentally, both were also drawn at various times by Lee Elias.

James E. Lyle captures the Black Canary in pensive repose, above. Lyle's drew inspiration for this piece from the Police song "Canary in a Coal Mine." I believe that Sting would approve.

The striking similarity between these two heroines inspired an entry in my Common Elements commission series. Video game designer Jeffrey Moy, best known in comics for his lengthy run on Legion of Super-Heroes, brings his trademark flourish to Linda Turner and her newfound friend Dinah Drake Lance below.

On your way now, cats and canaries. Stay cool if you can: Summer's here.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Going to a hukilau

Among my delightful Father's Day gifts was a bag of this delectable new coffee from the Sign of the Mermaid: Starbucks Kopelani Blend.

According to the package, kopelani means "heavenly coffee" in Hawaiian. Although I've retained a fair amount of local-style pidgin from my childhood in the Islands, I can't vouch for the veracity of this translation. For all I know, kopelani means "empty your wallet" in the mother tongue.

Whatever the name means, this sure is some heavenly coffee. I'm celebrating my half-birthday with a gently steaming mug even as I type. (I believe the word is multitasking.)

Despite the Hawaiian handle, Starbucks Kopelani Blend contains only 10% Kona coffee, that savory varietal from the leeward shores of the Big Island. The balance of the beans comprise a blend of African and Latin American coffees, resulting in a tangy, fruity, slightly acidic flavor palate that's perfect for early-morning quaffing.

Kopelani Blend brews up light and aromatic, not at all overpowering. It's a pleasant accompaniment alongside your favorite breakfast fare, or just for smooth and easy sipping. It would make a nice, summery iced coffee, perhaps for serving at your next hukilau.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my ukelele awaits...

We'll throw our nets out into the sea
Where all the ama-ama come a-swimmin' to me
Oh, we're goin' to a hukilau
A huki, huki, huki, huki, hukilau.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hey, Hulk: Smash this

Yesterday, while basking in the glow of a rare break in my midday schedule, I saw The Incredible Hulk.

I was underwhelmed.

First, you have to understand that I was one of the few comics fans who actually enjoyed Ang Lee's Hulk film of five years ago. It wasn't a perfect film by any stretch — the grand climax of the story, while innovative, simply didn't work for me. Still, I found Lee's Hulk a well-crafted and thoughtful reimagining of the venerable Marvel Comics character.

I can also understand why hardcore Hulk fans didn't care for Lee's film. That's probably the reason why we part company in our evaluation of it. Although I've been reading Marvel comics for more than 40 years, I've never really been a Hulk fan. Even though the Hulk costarred in one of my favorite comic series of the 1970s, The Defenders, the book read better (in my opinion) after the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner — another character I was never all that crazy about — departed the team in favor of C-listers like the Valkyrie, Nighthawk, and Hellcat. The fact Lee tried to do something different with the character, therefore, helped it resonate with me more than if he'd simply followed the formula of the original comics, or — heaven forfend — the execrable TV series from the '70s.

Which brings me to Louis Leterrier's movie, which wants so desperately to be both of those things. Only louder, longer, and more expensive.

Let's try a point-by-point view.

Bruce Banner: Eric Bana vs. Edward Norton. Physically, Norton has the edge in replicating the Bruce Banner of the comic books — he's lean, wiry, all rabbity intensity and nervous energy. The brawny Bana, by comparison, is practically Hulkian, without any aid from the FX department. Norton is by far the superior thespian — Bana is no slouch, mind you, but Norton is one of the four or five best film actors of his generation. Oddly, though, Norton's performance sounds too many of the same notes again and again — as much as Bana's Banner (I love the sound of that) was criticized by some as being too flat in affect, Norton's spins too far in the opposite direction. I could believe Bana as a detached, self-absorbed, hyperbrilliant scientist. Norton just seemed like a computer nerd on a caffeine jag. Winner: Bana, by a nose.

Betty Ross: Jennifer Connelly vs. Liv Tyler. That pretty well sums it up, doesn't it? You simply can't replace Connelly's warmth and vulnerability — to say nothing of her Oscar-worthy acting chops — with Tyler's dewy-eyed, Bambi-in-headlights vapidness. As Stan Lee himself would put it, 'nuff said. Winner: Connelly, in a rout.

General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross: Sam Elliott vs. William Hurt. Neither Elliott nor Hurt much resembles, either in appearance or personality, the over-the-top Ross of the Silver Age comics. Which is a good thing, in both instances. Elliott, though, found a richness and multifaceted humanity in the role that is utterly lacking in Hurt's peculiarly downbeat take. Elliott's General Ross is perhaps too decent a man to make a compelling villain; Hurt's is just too boring to care about, one way or the other. Winner: Elliott.

Whacked-out bad guy: Nick Nolte vs. Tim Roth. Now, I like Roth's work a great deal. I believe that in his character's fleeting nanoseconds of thematic development, he does a nice job with his obsessive super-soldier turned Son of Godzilla. But the script doesn't give him anything at all to work with... much like the other actors involved. Nolte, on the other hand, took a similarly underwritten role and flat-out blew the roof off the sucker. People laughed when Nolte nabbed an Oscar nomination for his razor's edge turn in Hulk. I thought the man deserved... well, if not an Academy Award, then maybe a year in an outpatient clinic. Winner: Call this one a tie.

Director: Ang Lee vs. Louis Leterrier. Let's see... Sense and Sensibility; The Ice Storm; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain. Or... Transporter 2. If you want a film with grace, sensitivity, and psychological depth, you hire the first guy. If you want stuff blowed up real good, you get the other guy. Leterrier's not a bad action director; as the "artistic director" on the first Transporter film (he settled for a lesser credit behind lead director Corey Yuen due to since-changed Directors Guild rules), he showed a flair for hyperkinetic violence. But comparing him to Ang Lee is like comparing a talented amateur to Rembrandt. Don't even try. Winner: What are you, kidding me? It's Ang "The Fang" Lee, baby.

Special effects: Excess vs. wretched excess. This is, after all, where the purple pants hit the street, correct? For all the advancements in CGI technology over the past five years, I thought the Hulk looked more Hulk-like — that is, more in line with the depiction of the character I most remember from my Marvel fanboy youth; the Herb Trimpe-Marie Severin Hulk — in the earlier movie. The new Hulk seems strangely proportioned, with a too-small head and too-sharp features. (I realize that the CGI animators in both cases used the lead actor's face as a model for their work. I'm just saying that Eric Bana's features made for a more realistic Hulk than Edward Norton's.) The FX in Incredible Hulk also suffer from Transformers syndrome: too much frenzied motion, too much splatter, too much too-muchness. At least in Ang Lee's film, the eye could always follow the action without the brain getting left three steps behind. Still, if you dig spectacle for spectacle's sake — and that appears to be what the teeming hordes who hated Lee's Hulk wanted — Leterrier delivers what you crave, in spades. Winner: The accounting department at Marvel.

Is the new Hulk film good or bad? That depends on your tastes. If all you want from your Hulk is sound and fury, signifying major league box office, The Incredible Hulk may be just your cup of gamma-irradiated tea. If you prefer a little more meat for the cerebellum with your Hulk-smashed potatoes, you'll probably leave the theater jonesing for earplugs and a hit of antinausea medication.

Either way, if you buy a ticket, you'll have the folks at Marvel seeing green.

Personal postscript: For me, the funniest moment in The Incredible Hulk was the scene in which Edward Norton's Bruce Banner encounters a security guard played by Lou Ferrigno, the champion bodybuilder who Hulked out in a fright wig and verdant makeup in the old TV series. (Ferrigno also provided the Hulk's vocalizations for the new film's soundtrack.) When Norton and Ferrigno shook hands, I half-expected Ferrigno's manager to leap into the frame and demand that Norton pony up a Jackson for the privilege of clasping Lou's giant mitt. Anyone who's ever seen Ferrigno shilling his photos and autographs at a comics convention has witnessed that sequence of events, and knows exactly what I'm talking about.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Defend your right to bear flags

On this date in 1846, 33 men hoisted a flag in the square of the little town of Sonoma — just on the other side of Sonoma Mountain from here — and proclaimed themselves independent of the Mexican government, which held the local reins of power at the time.

That flag, emblazoned with a lone star, a red stripe, and the silhouette of a grizzly bear (at least, what creator William Todd intended to be a grizzly bear — wags commented that Todd's bear looked more like a pig), marked the dawn of the short-lived California Republic, nicknamed "the Bear Flag Republic."

The hardy band of insurgents took as their prisoner General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, commandant of the Presidio of Sonoma, and installed one of their own, William B. Ide, as president of the Republic. On June 23, the fledgling state was reinforced by the 60-man California Battalion, under the command of Major John C. Frémont. The following day, Frémont's battalion and the Bear Flag crew routed 50 Mexican troops led by General José Castro at Olompali (in the vicinity of present-day Novato) — the first California battle of the Mexican-American War.

On July 9, the Bear Flag in Sonoma was lowered and replaced with the Stars and Stripes, as the republic accepted annexation by the United States. The Bear Flag's general concept lives on today, in the state flag of California.

As a Californian for the past 32 years, I'm proud of my adopted home.

Even if we do have a bear on our flag.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Dance like an Egyptian

As the late, great Jim McKay might have said...

"What in The Wide World of Sports happened to my week?"

All of a sudden, it's another Comic Art Friday, and I haven't posted one doggoned thing since last Friday.

I'm falling down on my blogging responsibilities. It's a crying shame.

Oh, well. I'll do better next week.

Moving on...

Without question, nostalgia plays an essential role in comic art collecting. I know every few, if indeed any, collectors in the hobby who weren't avid comic book readers in their youth. (I know plenty of comic art collectors who are not comic readers today, which says more about the present state of the mainstream comics industry than almost anything else I can name.)

As we've seen on the two most recent Comic Art Fridays, my nostalgia for my comic-geek childhood and my fond recollections of other aspects of popular culture that I experienced during my formative years frequently intersect in my art collection.

Take, for example, my Isis gallery.

I love the classic Saturday morning TV show The Secrets of Isis — produced by Filmation, and starring the ineffably sublime JoAnna Cameron in the title role. The Secrets of Isis is the only television series for which I own all of the episodes on DVD. (And yes, I actually break down and watch a couple of eps whenever the Isis jones overtakes me.)

Isis's September 1975 premiere made her the first superheroine in TV history to headline her own weekly series — Wonder Woman debuted two months later; The Bionic Woman, the following January. You know I'm all about the superheroines. One might even say that I have a superheroine addiction.

Which creates the perfect segue into today's featured artwork.

The pencil art of Mike Vosburg graced seven of the eight issues of the Isis comic book, which DC Comics published during the TV show's tenure (1976-77). Mike has also drawn dozens of other properties during his 35-year career in comics, most notably DC's Starfire (which Mike co-created) and Marvel's She-Hulk and G.I. Joe. These days, in addition to his various illustrating projects, Mike is much sought after as a storyboard artist for motion pictures and television. He storyboarded the first film in the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and is currently at work on the third film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I had the opportunity to meet Mike at WonderCon back in February, and found him a most congenial gentleman. We even talked a bit about Isis — how could we not? Some months later, I received an e-mail from a fellow comic art collector who's helping Mike promote his new limited-edition sketchbook — cleverly titled Heroine Addiction (now you get the connection) — and sell the original artwork featured in the book. Mike's friend, knowing my passion for all things Isis, thought I might like to own the Isis drawing Mike created for Heroine Addiction. Again, how could I not?

Mike even personalized the art for me, and included a gratis copy of his sketchbook. Isis and her dancing partners (Mike's a cat fancier, hence Isis's feline companion) are now proudly hanging on my office wall, even as I type.

If you'd like to view more of Mike Vosburg's work, and perhaps score a little Heroine Addiction for yourself, check out his Web site. You can tell Mike your Uncle Swan sent you.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

More blogging next week. Scout's honor.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Bombshells! part B

When last we assembled for Comic Art Friday, we introduced our new comic art commission theme, Bombshells! In case you were unlawfully imprisoned at a Uwe Boll film retrospective seven days ago, whip back in time and see what all the fuss was about.

I'll wait.


Up to speed now?


Anyway, you now grok the basic Bombshells! concept: Superheroines from the 1940s, featured in pinups modeled after World War II-era bomber nose art. Mighty doggoned inventive, yes?

So let's check out a couple more. Like the first two Bombshells!, today's drawings showcase the sleek stylings of penciler Dan Veesenmeyer and the solid embellishments of inker Bob Almond.

First, allow me to introduce you to Bulletgirl.

Although Susan Kent (hmm... where have I heard that surname before?) was featured in the stories about her paramour, Jim Barr — a.k.a. Bulletman — from the beginning (Nickel Comics #1, May 1940), it wasn't until almost a year after their debut that Susan became Bulletgirl (Master Comics #13, April 1941). The projectile pair continued their war against evil throughout the 1940s, eventually fading from the scene — along with most other costumed comic book characters — at the end of that decade.

Bulletgirl, while not widely remembered today except by comics historians and hardcore aficionados, proved in many respects a pioneer of things to come. She was the first superheroine to fight alongside her similarly uniformed husband (Susan and Jim having tied the proverbial knot along the way), foreshadowing such familiar characters as the Invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four. Bulletgirl also blazed the nomenclatural trail for the myriad Batgirls, Supergirls, She-Hulks, and Spider-Women who followed.

In addition, Bulletgirl was one of the few superpowered heroines to appear regularly — as something other than a damsel in distress — on comic book covers during her Golden Age heyday. Many of the early costumed females in comics who became popular enough to make cover appearances (i.e., the original Black Cat and the Blonde Phantom) lacked any superhuman abilities.

Speaking of the Blonde Phantom, she's now a Bombshell! too.

Unlike Bulletgirl and her ilk, the Blonde Phantom needed no namesake masculine counterpart on whose coattails she could travel. She was not only skilled enough to operate solo, but also fetching enough to sell comics with her own code name in the title. Following her premiere in All-Select Comics #11 (Fall 1946), the Blonde Phantom took over the masthead with the very next issue, titled Blonde Phantom Comics #12. She headlined the book until its cancellation in 1949.

Also unlike Bulletgirl, the Blonde Phantom — one of the few characters in comics history to make her hair color a selling point (Red Sonja is the only other I can think of, off the top of my head) — had no superscientific helmet to endow her with paranormal might. She had to make do with dispatching foes the old-fashioned way — with fashion, finesse, and a .45.

Like Ginger Rogers opposite Fred Astaire, the Blonde Phantom did everything that Batman or the Spirit could do — only she did it all in a floor-length evening gown (albeit with a thigh-high slit for... ah... freedom of movement) and stiletto pumps.

Did I mention that the Blonde Phantom was the first significant superheroine created by the legendary Stan Lee, a good 15 years before the dawn of Marvel Age of Comics?

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Primary post-mortem

Rubbing the sleep gunk from my eyes and reflecting upon yesterday's electoral events...

You go, Obama.

This is, without question, the funniest thing I've read all week. Mark Evanier said it, over at his excellent blog, News from ME:
Going into this election, McCain has certain advantages and Obama has certain advantages. Obama's biggest one may be that there are no photos of him hugging George Bush.
The funniest thing I've heard aloud all week was spoken last night by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, asked about the historic nature of Obama's now-certain nomination:
It's certainly a historic moment in our history.
Which is where historic moments occur, historically speaking.

Back to McCain: Was that the most agonizingly dull political speech any Presidential candidate ever delivered, or what? I was driving to rehearsal as McCain was speaking, and I darn near dozed off at the wheel. And he wants to go face-to-face with Obama in ten town hall meetings this summer? Egad. Someone in his campaign needs to talk him out of that idea, pronto. It'll be JFK vs. Nixon all over again.

What does Hillary want? For the entire planet to kiss her pantsuited little butt, apparently. Memo to Hil-Rod: The fat lady hasn't just sung; she's recorded an entire soundtrack album, packed up her microphone and Viking helmet, and headed for a nice leisurely vacation in Hawaii. Let it go, already.

By the way, is Hillary taking oratorical lessons from John McCain? Yikes, that was dreadful. If you're going to be irritatingly ubiquitous, at least be entertaining.

I can't believe that Obama would seriously consider Hillary for the second slot on the ticket, given the way she's dragged this mess along. I think he might roll the dice with Kathleen Sibelius, the governor of Kansas, a savvy manager (Time Magazine named her one of the country's five best governors a couple of years back) who's popular with the electorate in an generally Republican state. Obama still, however, seems more likely to choose a seasoned veteran with foreign policy experience — a Sam Nunn or Chris Dodd type. Bill Richardson wouldn't be a bad choice, either, and could help Obama draw in some Latino voters.

In local politics, not such a good night for me. The candidates for whom I voted in both our State Senate primary (Joe Nation) and the county supervisor race (Tim Smith) lost by wide margins. I'm better at picking racehorses than politicians.

Ah, well. There's always Obama.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: The Next Food Network Star

Two seasons ago, local restaurant personality Guy Fieri took The Next Food Network Star by storm, winning his own cooking show — the hit Guy's Big Bite — and launching a TV career that soon made him ubiquitous on the cable channel.

Last season, a charisma-challenged field of contestants served up a tainted victor — San Diego soccer mom Amy Finley, who after being voted off returned to the show when another contestant (Joshua "JAG" Garcia) was dismissed for fabricating his culinary and military résumés. Amy's six-episode series, The Gourmet Next Star, boasted all the excitement of drying model cement, and swiftly vanished from the airwaves.

So what does this season's gang of ten tele-chef wannabes look like?
  • Aaron McCargo Jr. is the executive chef at a New Jersey hospital. I've eaten hospital food, and I've seen New Jersey. If either is any indication, I don't hold out much hope for Aaron.

  • Adam Gertler is an aspiring actor and waiter — as though that isn't redundant — who used to own a barbecue joint in Philadelphia. He strikes me as kind of goofy and annoying.

  • If Cory Kahaney's name sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because she's a stand-up comedian who made the finals of Last Comic Standing a few seasons ago. Cory's not laughing now, because she was the first contestant booted off in her latest competitive reality show challenge. Seeya, Cory.

  • Jeffrey Vaden is a caterer who, at 6'5", towers over his fellow contestants. For some reason, he reminds me a little of Geoffrey Holder, the actor from Trinidad who used to do those 7-Up commercials back in the day.

  • Jennifer Cochrane is the executive chef at a pair of restaurants in Rhode Island. Given the size of Rhode Island, those may be the only two restaurants in the entire state. She's working the "suffering single mom" angle way too hard for my taste.

  • Kelsey Nixon lost me the moment she referred to herself in her bio as "Mini Martha Stewart." She's blonde, cheerleader-chirpy, and from Utah, which I believe adds up to another redundancy. She's already had her own cooking show on local television. As far as I'm concerned, that was one Kelsey show too many. The world does not need a mini Martha Stewart. I'm not entirely sure we need the full-sized version.

  • Kevin Roberts, a chef and cookbook author from San Diego, is perhaps the most laid-back contestant in the group. Chalk at least some of that up to his experience as a culinary commentator for a radio station. I find him bland and unremarkable, but his background should help.

  • As far as I'm concerned, restaurateur and former pageant queen Lisa Garza can pack up her attitude and her Louise Brooks hairdo, and boogie on back to Dallas anytime now. She's smug, self-important, and insufferable — all of which helped land her in the bottom two. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Miss Thing.

  • Nipa Bhatt is one of the more interesting options — her specialty is Indian food, and Food Network tends to be lacking in the ethnic cuisine department. She's smart, focused, and confident to a fault, but she might come off as a mite too serious (even grim) for weekly TV.

  • Youngster Shane Lyons — he's only 20, and already a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America — is a former child actor who costarred on Nickelodeon's All That a few years ago. Now he's a caterer in Colorado Springs. Shane broke down in tears during the first evaluation session with the judges. ("There's no crying in cooking!") He's probably had more face time on camera than any contestant except the now-departed Cory, but he'll have to man up if he wants to stick around.
It's hard to pick a single early favorite after the first episode, but if I had to bet, I'd put my money on a Jennifer/Kelsey final. They both have the kind of telegenic, upbeat (read: gratingly perky) personalities that Food Network favors. Time, as the saying goes, will tell.

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