Friday, August 29, 2008

Val to the third power

I'm SwanShadow, and I approve today's Comic Art Friday.

When it comes to a new Common Elements commission, the concept usually precedes the artist. In most cases, I have the character match-up in mind long before I've given any thought to the artist or artists who will create each piece. Truth to tell, I have a Common Elements concept list with more than 100 possible future entries on it, and I add new ideas as they occur to me. Most of these will never see the light of day unless I win the lottery — which is unlikely in the extreme, since I never buy lottery tickets.

Once in a great while, though, an artist actually inspires a Common Elements concept. This is one of those rare instances.

Some time ago, Val Semeiks — a comics veteran best known for well-received runs on Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian and DC's Lobo and The Demon, and most recently back at Marvel on She-Hulk — drew a stupendous Common Elements commission featuring Elasti-Girl and the Dr. Bill Foster version of Goliath. When Val alerted me that he was available to do another piece, I wanted to come up with a concept unique to him.

After some thought, I hit on the triple-Val idea (taking off from a previous CE drawn by Kyle Hotz, featuring the Kyle Rayner Green Lantern and Kyle "Nighthawk" Richmond of the Defenders). Mr. Semeiks jumped all over this one like a hungry Rottweiler on a T-bone. The scenario -- Valkyrie, the antiheroine of the long-running series Airboy (originally published by Hillman Periodicals in 1942, and more recently by Eclipse Comics), and comics' other Valkyrie, the sword-and-spear-wielding woman warrior most familiar to comics fans as a member of the Defenders -- dueling on the wing of a plummeting, flame-spewing Heinkel He-162 Salamander (also known as the Volksj├Ąger) -- sprang like Athena from the brain of the artist.

Val meticulously adjusted the complex perspective until he got it dead solid perfect. The scene's evolution can be viewed by comparing Val's initial thumbnail sketch... this more developed layout drawing...

...and ultimately to the finished artwork.

As we used to say in Hawai'i, "Mo' Val, mo' bettah."

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Making love in a Subaru

You veteran dementians and dementites are now cackling with glee at the title reference.

The rest of you... at least I have your attention.

After weeks of peering through brochures, scanning countless Web sites, and fielding dozens of phone messages and e-mails from eager automotive salespeople, KJ bought her new car Monday night: a sage green 2009 Subaru Forester with all the bells and whistles, including a power moonroof, a six-CD stereo, and gray leather upholstery.

All together now: Oooooooooooh. Aaaaaaaaaaaah.

Needless to say, KJ's as giddy as a schoolgirl over her purchase. And I'm happy because she's happy. (We all know the song: "When Mama Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy.")

She negotiated the deal via e-mail. When the price was set, we trekked across the bridge to not-so-beautiful downtown Oakland, where a pleasant gentleman named Kay obtained our signatures on what seemed like reams of duplicate forms, gave us a tour of the dashboard as he fueled the car at a nearby gas station, swapped two sets of ignition keys and door remotes for the largest check KJ has ever written in her life, and sent us merrily on our way as Subaru owners.

And yes, it's a nice car. (I'm reminded of that old Peugeot commercial in which the late Fabio-tressed tennis hunk Vitas Gerulaitis chauffeured his aged father about in his snazzy new ride, only to hear the senior Mr. Gerulaitis say, "Is a nice Peugeot, Vitas. Now when you are getting a haircut?")

For those of you still mystified by the title of this post, "Making Love in a Subaru" was a novelty record popularized way back when by cult radio personality Barrett Hansen, better known as Dr. Demento. The song, recorded by the good Doctor's frequent contributor and occasional sidekick Damaskas (whose real name, I'm told, is Dan Hollombe), extols the virtues of carnal pleasure as performed in the cramped confines of a 1970s-vintage Subaru.

Back in my high school days, I enjoyed many laughs over that song, because (a) that kind of puerile humor is hilarious to teenage boys, of which I was then one, and (b) my best friend at the time drove a Subaru — an oddly boxy little white vehicle with the then-novel feature of all-wheel drive.

Did my pal ever test the Damaskas theory? That, friend reader, is a tale best left untold, on the advice of my attorney.

As for KJ and I... let's just say that we're not in high school any more.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Item #101: Don't die before you finish the list

Irony doesn't get more bitter than this.

Dave Freeman, the co-author of the popular travel book 100 Things to Do Before You Die, has died.

He had only done about half of the things on his famous list.

Freeman was 47.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Olympic bling from Beijing

As the familiar five-ringed flag sinks slowly into the Beijing sunset, here are the sights, sounds, and random synapse-firings that I'll carry away from the Games of the XXIX Olympiad:
  • So, Michael Phelps... what are going to do for an encore? You could start by buying Jason Lezak a Porsche.

  • Baseball and softball are no longer worthy to be called Olympic sports, but synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics — or, as KJ calls it, "that Cirque du Soleil thing" — stay? Well, plug my nose with a rubber clip and tie me up with a ribbon.

  • Nothing against beach volleyball — and certainly nothing against our two gold medal-winning teams, Misty May-Treanor / Kerri Walsh and Phil Dalhausser / Todd Rogers — but... NBC sure aired a surfeit of beach volleyball, didn't they?

  • There's a reason why the two Americans competing in the modern pentathlon finished 19th and 21st: They're the only two people in the United States who know what the modern pentathlon is.

  • Congratulations to my former schoolmate — we were students at Pepperdine at the same time — Terry Schroeder for coaching the U.S. men's water polo team to a silver medal. I still think the game would be more fun with horses.

  • Call me crazy, but I believe the members of the Chinese diving team possess the mutant power to separate water molecules telepathically. That's the only way I can figure that they can make so little splash.

  • Speaking of diving, Laura Wilkinson reminds me of my friend Phil's wife. I don't know whether Jane dives, though.

  • Most appropriately named athlete: Usain Bolt. It's absolutely usain how fast that guy is.

  • I don't know what happens to rifleman Matthew Emmons during the Olympic three-positions rifle event, but he's gotta be seeking therapy after blowing a gold medal on his final shot in two consecutive Games.

  • Probably no competitor in the Games overcame more painful and immediate personal tragedy than U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, whose father-in-law was killed, and his mother-in-law seriously wounded, in a random act of violence while touring Beijing. I'm sure that a gold medal is small consolation, but I'm glad Hugh got one anyway.

  • Hey, Dara Torres: Way to represent for the over-40 crowd. Children of the '60s rule!

  • I hope that decathlon gold medalist and unofficial "World's Greatest Athlete" Bryan Clay doesn't go all crazy with the plastic surgery in later life, like a certain predecessor who shall go nameless here. (***cough***BruceJenner***cough***)

  • Needing a dose of graciousness: American speedster Jeremy Wariner. Who tinkled on your cornflakes, Jeremy?

  • Two words for the French 4x100 meter freestyle relay team: Crush this.

  • Happiest guy to win a bronze medal: David Neville, who dove across the finish line to place third in the men's 400 meters, and afterward beamed like a six-year-old at Christmas.

  • It's amazing — and more than a trifle tragic — to realize that, 20 years after she set them (and nearly a decade after her death), the late Florence Griffith-Joyner still holds the women's world records at both 100 and 200 meters.

  • Of course the Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate the distance races. Those guys run farther than that just to find breakfast.

  • I thought the American gymnasts, women and men, showed beaucoup class throughout the competition. Shawn, Nastia, Alicia and the rest are welcome to come hang out with my daughter anytime.

  • Way to go, Redeem Team, for living up to the hype.

  • Our local hero, cyclist Levi Leipheimer, bagged a bronze medal in the men's time trial. You go, Levi!

  • My daughter KM, ever the horsewoman, was thrilled when the U.S. equestrians (including KM's heroine, Beezie Madden) won the team-jumping gold. This bugs me, however: Why do the riders get the medals when the horses do all the work?

  • Dunderhead of the Games: Cuban taekwondo competitor (I'm No) Angel Matos, who kicked a referee in the face after getting disqualified for overextending an injury timeout. Enjoy the lifetime ban, loser.

  • And of course, the Chinese gymnasts are all 16. In dog years.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Identity theft, superhero style

We interrupt this post for an urgent news bulletin.

Senator Barack Obama wanted to name me as his vice presidential running mate this afternoon. I have declined, however, as the resulting firestorm of media attention would have prevented me from completing today's Comic Art Friday.

So he's going with the other guy.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled post.

My friend and fellow comic art collector Damon Owens has a particular fondness for the "forgotten heroes" of comics history, especially those whose adventures were published by little-known or short-lived companies. In fact, Damon has an entire gallery of commissioned artworks devoted to what he calls "The Dead Universes Project," a showcase for characters whose fortunes evaporated when the publishing entities who created them did likewise.

Although the DC Comics universe remains alive and well, I have a feeling that Damon will enjoy today's Comic Art Friday spotlight.

I've entitled this incredible drawing by Mike Vosburg "Identity Theft," because it illustrates the level of indignity often perpetrated by comic book publishers on their less popular characters. The dynamic duo depicted here are Starfire (left) and Steel (right), both of whom headlined their own DC series in the 1970s. Starfire ran for a mere eight issues, beginning in August 1976. Steel, the Indestructible Man lasted for even less time, bowing out after only five issues in 1978.

Now, if you're a relatively recent reader of DC's oeuvre, you may be thinking, "That doesn't look like either the Starfire or Steel I'm familiar with." And you'd be right. Since 1980, the name Starfire has been associated with a completely different DC superheroine, an orange-skinned alien who's probably best known as a member of the Teen Titans. As for Steel, that code name has been worn for the last 15 years by the hammer-swinging, armor-clad scientist-hero whose real name is John Henry Irons, as portrayed (and I use the term loosely) in an ill-conceived 1997 live-action motion picture starring basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal.

Your confusion, therefore, is understandable.

Though she's all but forgotten today, the "original" Starfire (I use the quotes because DC actually had another, even more obscure — and male — superhero who briefly used the name for a single issue of Teen Titans in 1968) was a nifty character in her own right. Created by artist Vosburg and writer David Michelinie, Starfire lived on a distant planet torn by civil war. The daughter of slaves, young Starfire trained in various martial arts — most noticeably, swordsmanship — awaiting the day when she could lead her people in revolt against their oppressors.

Starfire's adventures offered an intriguing amalgam of the science fiction and sword-and-sorcery genres that were popular in the '70s. One might think of her, in fact, as sort of an interstellar Red Sonja. For whatever reason — most likely, the lack of evident connection to the mainstream DC universe — Starfire didn't catch fire with readers. In the 30 years since her book's cancellation, she's made only a couple of token reappearances.

Today's more famous Starfire — whose real name is Koriand'r — teams up in this Common Elements commission with the mysterious Question. Behind the latter's featureless face mask lurks crusading journalist Charles Victor Szasz, whose nom de plume is Vic Sage. If you spend any time puttering in the kitchen, you'll quickly figure out what Koriand'r and Sage share in common. The artist here is rising indie comics star Shawn Surface.

Steel, of Indestructible Man fame, has fared slightly better than has Starfire. Even though his eponymous series was pretty much dead on arrival — again, partly due to the fact that it lacked continuity with other DC books, as the stories were set in the 1930s — Steel (or Commander Steel, as he was also known) has inspired at least two generations of descendants endowed with his cybernetically induced powers (for the most part, super-strength and the aforementioned invulnerability). The original Steel's grandson served during the 1980s as a member of the Justice League of America using the Steel code name. Another modern-day relation — a cousin of the second Steel — battles evil with the recently revitalized Justice Society, under the moniker Citizen Steel.

The current Steel — a.k.a. John Henry Irons — fights a losing battle with the mighty Thor in this Common Elements smackdown designed and penciled by the great Trevor Von Eeden, and inked by the equally great Joe Rubinstein.

Let this be a lesson to you, friend reader: Guard your superhero identity carefully. There's always an interloper waiting in the wings to swipe your code name.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lord Bowler's final frame

I was sorry to read just now that actor Julius Carry passed away yesterday, reportedly from pancreatic cancer.

Fans of genre cinema will remember Carry as Sho'Nuff, the self-styled "Shogun of Harlem" in Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon, the cult classic action flick that swirled together martial arts, hip-hop, and one-time Prince main squeeze Vanity. Sho'Nuff's shtick was asking the members of his criminal posse such questions as "Am I the prettiest?" or "Am I the meanest?" so the gang could holler back, "Sho'Nuff!"

My favorite Carry role, though, was the colorful bounty hunter Lord Bowler (so dubbed because he always wore a bowler hat) in the all-too-short-lived science fiction Western The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (Think The Wild, Wild West with a '90s sensibility and no Will Smith.)

Carry appeared opposite the legendary Bruce Campbell — veteran of numerous Sam Raimi films (including the Evil Dead trilogy, in which he played wisecracking antihero Ash Williams) and currently the costar of USA Network's outstanding spy series Burn Notice — as the title character's skeptical sometime-partner in his search for the outlaws who murdered Brisco's U.S. Marshal father. Brisco was also obsessed with finding "the coming thing," the discovery he believed would usher in the modern age.

If you missed Brisco County during its original run in the nascent days of FOX, it's well worth checking out on DVD. Both Campbell and Carry are excellent in the series, which also featured TV veteran John Astin (the original Gomez in The Addams Family). It's a unique blend of genres, and one heck of a lot of fun.

Hope you found the coming thing, Lord Bowler.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My new best friend: Throat Coat

In the main, I tend to be skeptical of folk remedies, homeopathic medicines, and such like. (I think astrology is bunk, too.)

I'm a convert, though, to Throat Coat, an herbal tea from the fine folks at Traditional Medicinals. Because I make my living using my voice, I'm game to try anything that might help me preserve its function — especially when I'm battling some kind of upper respiratory bug, as I have been lately. Throat Coat came highly recommended by colleagues in the speaking business, as well as a number of professional vocalists, so I decided to give it a whirl.

What do you know? It works. And despite the word "medicinal" in the company name, it's perfectly palatable from a flavor perspective. It's slightly sweet, with a hint of earthy spiciness.

According to the box, Throat Coat contains as its key ingredient something called slippery elm. I'm certain that, now that I'm ingesting the stuff on a regular basis, some scientific study will soon appear, indicting slippery elm as a root cause of esophageal cancer, nervous system dysfunction, and early-onset Alzheimer's. But for the moment, I'm enjoying the fact that it keeps my throat lubricated without creating phlegm.

Uncle Swan's bottom line: Throat Coat isn't exactly a miracle panacea, but it does make my throat feel better. If you're a yakker or singer -- or, like myself, both -- try steeping yourself a cup and see whether it helps.

It probably can't hurt.


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Sunday, August 17, 2008

My dinner with Eugene

On Thursday, KJ and I drove the 530 miles from our sleepy Wine Country hamlet to Eugene, Oregon. (Okay, to be excruciatingly accurate, I drove while KJ alternated between navigating and napping.)

The trip was occasioned by the funeral of KJ's paternal grandmother, who passed away on Sunday. Due to lingering aftereffects of her first surgery for breast cancer eight years ago, KJ can't travel by air any longer, so we loaded up her parents' spiffy new Honda CR-V (they flew to Portland earlier in the week, and rode down to Eugene with relatives) and headed off.

I had been to Eugene once before -- a dozen or so years ago, I had a week-long speaking engagement there. On that trip, I had jetted directly to Eugene and back. This week's highway junket provided an opportunity to see several hundred miles of my adopted home state -- and our neighbor to the north -- that I had never visited previously. Which, of course, meant that I did more than a little thinking out loud about the sights I observed along the journey. My mental jottings follow.
  • Mount Shasta looks even more majestic in real life than in silhouette on the label of a soda can.

  • While I'm on the subject, why isn't the city of Mount Shasta -- or Mount Shasta itself, for that matter -- located in Shasta County?

  • KJ, an Oregon native, says she can't recall ever seeing the water level in Lake Shasta as low as it is right now. I'll have to take her word for it, because I've never seen Lake Shasta before.

  • No offense to the fine residents of Drain, Oregon intended, but seriously... Drain is a dreadful name for a town.

  • The taxpayers of the Beaver State are definitely getting their money's worth out of their freeway improvement program. And all this time I thought we were suffering through a boatload of highway renovation here in Sonoma County. I'll never complain again. (We'll see how long that lasts.)

  • Medford, Oregon is a lousy place to spend 40 minutes in stop-and-go traffic on a 100-degree day due to a motor vehicle accident on a construction-impacted freeway. I'm sure Medford's peachy on just about any other day, but dang, that sucked.

  • Just in case you ever decide to stay there, the wireless network at the Campus Inn in downtown Eugene blows swamp water. I had to stand in the parking lot pointing my laptop at the hotel office to access enough of a wi-fi connection to download my e-mail. Inside our room, even with the back of the computer pressed against the window glass, I couldn't get any signal. Lame.

  • Speaking of lame, we waited an ungodly amount of time for KJ's hibachi chicken dinner at the Sizzler near the Gateway Mall in Springfield. We were beginning to think someone in the kitchen was personally incubating eggs into chicks. The waitress was sweetly apologetic, but still... get a move on, people.

  • I'm not really an automotive aficionado, but that Honda CR-V is a sweet ride. If you're in the market for something more substantial than a shoebox but smaller than a traditional minivan, you could do worse.

  • The Willamette River makes a lovely turn through Eugene and the surrounding area. In 100-degree heat, one might be tempted to take a dip.

  • I'm sure that someone had what seemed at the time an excellent reason for building a city on the site of Red Bluff, California, but I'll be doggoned if I can figure out what it might have been. If Red Bluff isn't the armpit of the universe, you can smell it from there.

  • The dilapidated restroom at one gas station where we refueled had a sign on its wall reading, "This restroom is periodically inspected to ensure your comfort and convenience." From the look of the place, the "period" in question must have been the Jurassic.

  • If all the billboards and TV commercials are any indication, Abby's Legendary Pizza is one of the most popular franchise eateries in Oregon. I wasn't even aware that my dog owned a pizzeria chain. I'm going to have to start charging her rent.

  • I hope the chatty waitress at the Chevy's in Redding had a safe trip to Pensacola.

  • Things are alike all over: Just like back home, the Eugene/Springfield area has two shopping malls -- one upscale and apparently thriving (they call theirs Valley River Center, we call ours Santa Rosa Plaza), the other older and downmarket, with numerous empty storefronts (theirs is the Gateway Mall, ours is Coddingtown).

  • Southern Oregon is the tree capital of the known world. If you're shopping for evergreens, they can spare a couple.

  • One-word memo to the Saturday morning desk clerk at the Campus Inn: Decaf.

  • I was disappointed to discover that, despite the name, there are no tributes to the great Eugene Finerman anywhere in Eugene. Pity.

  • Both of the times I've been to Oregon, I've come home with nasty sinus infections. Perhaps I'm allergic to beavers.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Was blind, but now I see

I got new contact lenses and eyeglasses from my optometrist's office today.

This isn't an earth-shattering announcement by any means. I've worn corrective lenses since I was in the first grade — yes, you whippersnappers, that was more than 40 years ago. I've worn contacts since I was in college.

This was the first time in nearly ten years, however, that I've invested in a new pair of glasses. My prescription has changed little in that time, although like many people my age, my myopic focal point has shifted to the degree that I now require reading magnification in addition to distance correction.

I can read slightly more clearly with the new contacts — which were last changed a couple of years ago — but I won't be able to pitch the granny specs entirely. In fact, I'm wearing them as I type this post.

Age, my youthful reader, is a harsh mistress.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Get a piece of LaRocque

All right, I'll admit it...

I pretty much blew off July here at SSTOL. Ironic, since we celebrated our fourth blogiversary back on the eleventh of the month. (Belated gifts — especially of cash — will still be cheerfully accepted.)

Sorry about that.

Let's crank up August with a solid Comic Art Friday, featuring a pair of recent additions to my Common Elements theme. Both of today's artworks were created by longtime comics artist Greg LaRocque, who's best known for his runs on Legion of Super-Heroes and The Flash for DC Comics, along with Power Man and Iron Fist and various Spider-Man titles (Web of Spider-Man, Marvel Team-Up) at Marvel.

As I was channel-surfing one night a few months back, I stumbled across a rerun of Stephen King's It, that craptastic made-for-TV adaptation starring a horde of washed-up TV actors (including Richard "John-Boy" Thomas, Harry "Night Court" Anderson, Tim "Venus Flytrap" Reid, and the late John Ritter) and occasionally enlivened by gratuitous Annette O'Toole sightings, plus Tim Curry's genuinely frightening appearances as the demonic clown Pennywise.

If you've seen the movie (or, I presume, read the book), you'll recall that Thomas's character (a horror novelist who serves as author King's avatar) overcame a childhood stuttering problem by repeatedly reciting the mantra, "He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts." When I heard that line afresh, I thought, "Now there's a Common Elements artwork waiting to happen." So I commissioned Greg LaRocque to draw it. I figured that was appropriate, since one of Greg's earliest published assignments was a story in DC's horror anthology, Ghosts.

On the left, that's Ghost, a tentpole character for Dark Horse Comics in the mid-1990s. On the right is the Spectre, a stalwart of the DC Comics universe since the early 1940s, when he was a charter member of the original super-team, the Justice Society of America.

Although she hasn't been seen much in the last decade or so, Ghost's place in comics history was secured by the popularity of fan favorite artist Adam Hughes, who drew interior art for the series' first few issues, as well as several of its covers. A number of prominent creators — including Matt Haley, Terry Dodson, Doug Braithwaite, Ivan Reis, and John Cassaday — contributed art after Hughes moved on.

The Spectre may well be the most powerful superhero ever created for comics. When a police detective named Jim Corrigan is murdered, he becomes a spirit avenger in the employ of the Almighty Himself. The Spectre's abilities are practically without limit — when you work directly for God, you get all the cool tools — to the degree that the character has always seemed... well... somewhat pointless. (Why doesn't he just rid the universe of evildoers, and be done with it?) In recent years, other characters have replaced Corrigan as the Spectre — Hal Jordan, the second Green Lantern, had the job for a while, and another detective, Crispus Allen, served as the Spectre's human host the last time I checked.

Even as he was rendering our ghostly duo, LaRocque found time to craft a second Common Elements creation. You'll want to click the image to get a super-sized look at this one.

Tiger Girl, the masked feline on your left, is comics' version of such TV series as South of Sunset and Co-Ed Fever: Canceled after a single episode. Tiger Girl's sole appearance came in the lone issue of her eponymous comic, published by Gold Key in 1968. Too bad, really — feline-themed characters have enjoyed a storied history in comics (in fact, there was an earlier Tiger Girl in the 1940s — she, however, was more in the Sheena, Queen of the Jungle mode), so Tiger Girl might have caught on if given the chance. By the way, that's her sidekick Kitten, a trained circus cat, lounging in the center.

Our furry feline to the right is Tigra, a Marvel Comics heroine with an interesting backstory. When she first arrived on the scene in 1972, Greer Nelson assumed a rather traditional superheroic role as a yellow-and-blue-costumed crimefighter called the Cat. Her solo series, The Claws of the Cat, ran for a mere four issues before cancellation. A couple of years later, Greer was transformed into "Tigra the Were-Woman," a humanoid with tiger-like orange fur, black stripes, and the requisite claws, fangs, and tail. In her new persona, Tigra developed into a popular second-string Marvel character, most notably as a member of the Avengers (and later, of the spinoff West Coast Avengers).

Just curious...

If a werewolf is a human who transforms into a wolf, shouldn't a "were-woman" be a man who transforms into a woman? That would be a whole other comic book, I guess.

Incidentally, there's an additional connection between today's showcased artworks, aside from the artistic talents of Greg LaRocque. Both the Spectre and Tiger Girl were dreamed up by the same writer: Jerry Siegel, who also co-created a certain blue-clad, red-caped Man of Steel.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.