Monday, September 29, 2008

Giants post-script, 2008

My brief summation of the San Francisco Giants' season that concluded yesterday:

It could have been worse.

Indeed, I predicted back in March that the G-Men would finish last in the National League West this year. Thanks to the total collapse of the San Diego Padres, San Francisco wound up fourth in its division, only two games behind the third-place (and defending pennant winner) Colorado Rockies. The Giants' 72-90 record is ten games better than the 62-100 I feared might be their reality.

Best of all, the team's influx of untested talent proved entertaining more often than not — especially the break-through season by sophomore starter Tim Lincecum, who struck out a major league-leading 265 batters on his way to serious Cy Young Award contention.

So yes... it could have been worse.

That's not to say that it was good. As the report card below will reflect.

Starting pitching: Lincecum's stellar season (18-5; 2.62 ERA; he could easily have won 25 games given adequate run support and relief help) was the one bright spot for an otherwise disappointing crew. Barry Zito, the $126 million man, redeemed himself after a horrific 0-8 start to to post a 9-6 record over the last four months. Matt Cain, expected to be the staff ace, regressed into inconsistency (8-14; 3.76 ERA), pitching brilliantly at times, dreadfully at others. Jonathan Sanchez blew similarly hot and cold. The less said about fifth starter Kevin Correia, the better. Grade: C.

Relief pitching:Second-year closer Brian "Beach Boy" Wilson vaulted to All-Star status in 2008, notching 41 saves in 47 opportunities. The Giants needed Wilson's superlative services, because the rest of the bullpen was mostly dreadful. The other bright spots were rookies Alex Hinshaw and hard-throwing Sergio Romo, both of whom will get long looks as Wilson's set-up men next year. As for everyone else in the Giants relief corps... egad. Grade: C-.

Catching: Bengie "Big Money" Molina racked up his second consecutive solid offensive season (.292 BA; 16 HR; 95 RBI), while providing dependable defense behind the dish. Molina's backup for most of the season was rookie Steve Holm, until the August arrival of do-everything man Pablo "Little Money" Sandoval. Grade: A-.

Infield: The sweet-swinging Sandoval — who, in addition to catching, saw playing time at both first and third bases — proved to be one of the Giants' two major infield surprises. The other was shortstop Emmanuel Burriss, who played the more highly touted Brian Bocock back to the minors with his sparkling glove play, consistent hitting (.283), and speed on the basepaths.(Bocock's .143 average helped, too.) Both will be penciled into the Giants' starting lineup next spring. Aging and oft-injured veterans Ray Durham (shipped at midseason to Milwaukee) and Omar Vizquel gave way to up-and-comers Ivan Ochoa and Eugenio Velez — the latter's hair-pulling defensive lapses being ameliorated somewhat by his timely bat. Converted outfielder John Bowker saw most of the playing time at first base before a late-summer demotion. Grizzled Rich Aurilia had a commendable year (.283 BA; 10 HR) handling the utility chores. Grade: B.

Outfield: Randy Winn did his best to take over the leadership of the Giants outfield in the first year of the post-Barry Bonds era, and once again was one of San Francisco's most consistent offensive weapons with a .306 batting average. New center fielder Aaron Rowand struggled to live up to his mammoth free agent contract, providing confident defense and a modicum of power (13 home runs, second on the club), but often seeming overmatched at the plate. Last September's star Fred "Don't Call Me Freddy" Lewis solidified his claim to the third outfield spot before being sidelined by a late injury. Nate Schierholtz returned from Beijing with an Olympic bronze medal and a determination to vie for a position in 2009 — he hit .320 in 19 garbage-time games. Grade: B-.

Dugout: It's hard to assess what manager Bruce Bochy and his staff could have done differently or better in this rebuilding season. Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the Giants ate their way into a fourth-place finish in baseball's weakest division. Grade: D.

Overall: As stated earlier, this wasn't quite as awful a year for the Giants as it could have been, but this ballclub is years away from contending for a division title, much less a pennant. The Giants were one of the weakest offensive teams in baseball, with power stats that were almost nonexistent (the Giants' 94 home runs were the only sub-three digit team total in the majors). The emergence of All-Stars Lincecum and Wilson, plus budding stars Sandoval, Burriss, and Lewis in the field and at the plate, and Romo and Hinshaw on the mound, gives San Francisco fans hope for the future. Grade: C-.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Behind blue eyes

I awakened this morning to the sad news that Paul Newman had passed away.

Almost immediately, I began thinking about my favorite Newman films. After considerable dithering, I narrowed the list to a baker's half-dozen.

1. The Sting. An easy selection, as it's one of my ten favorite films of all time. Newman is perfect as dissolute con artist Henry Gondorff, who teams up with tyro Johnny Hooker (about a decade too old for his youthful role) for one last big score. The scene in which a faux-drunk Gondorff fleeces mobster Doyle Lonegan (Robert Shaw) at the poker table is a classic.

2. Cool Hand Luke. One of the films of the 1960s that pioneered the antihero archetype that would become ubiquitous in the following decade. Newman's free-spirited convict with a knack for escape defined a generation of maverick leading men.

3. The Hustler / The Color of Money. Made 25 years apart, these two films chronicle the early and late stages in the career of a small-time pool shark. As "Fast Eddie" Felson, Newman compelled audiences to rethink their concept of the traditional sports hero. The return of an older, more settled, and mostly wiser Eddie won Newman his only Academy Award for acting. (He won a career retrospective Oscar in 1986, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1994.)

4. The Verdict. Paul Newman speaking David Mamet dialogue — what could be better? Although I rate the preceding films more highly overall, Newman's portrayal of a morally conflicted boozehound attorney is, in my opinion, the finest performance of his career. Ironically, Mamet wrote the lead role for Newman's friend and collaborator Robert Redford, who ultimately turned the part down.

5. Harper / The Drowning Pool. This pair of detective dramas are more sentimental choices than anything else. I was an avid reader of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels when I was in high school, so I never missed an opportunity to catch either of these films — based on Macdonald books, albeit with the protagonist's surname changed to reflect Newman's success in films whose titles began with "H" (i.e., The Hustler, Hud, Hombre).

6. Torn Curtain. Neither Newman nor director Alfred Hitchcock liked the way this Cold War suspense thriller turned out. I personally think it's one of Hitch's better late-period films, and Newman gives an interesting, somewhat atypical performance opposite Julie Andrews.

Yes, I know — you were waiting for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Funny thing: As much as I love The Sting, I'm not a real fan of Newman, Redford, and director George Roy Hill's earlier team-up. My preferences in '60s Westerns run toward Sergio Leone — thus, like Roger Ebert, I find Butch and Sundance too flimsy and lightweight for my taste.

In addition to being a consummate actor, Paul Newman made his mark on the world as a philanthropist, entrepreneur, sportsman, and political and social activist. He and his wife, fellow Academy Award winner Joanne Woodward, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in January of this year — an accomplishment as noteworthy as any in Newman's amazingly full life.

The world will be dimmer without Newman's crystal blue gaze.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

As nervous as a canary in a cathouse

Last week, we kicked off our Talk Like a Pirate Day edition of Comic Art Friday with artist Jeffrey Moy's Common Elements pairing of two classic heroines from comics' Golden Age: the Black Cat and the Black Canary.

Proving that buccaneer boots remain fashionable crime-fighting footwear even when it isn't pirate season, the Cat and the Canary return today, starring in my "Bombshells!" pinup theme. For the benefit of any newcomers, "Bombshells!" features Golden Age heroines (for our purposes, that era encompasses the late 1930s through the 1950s) in original artworks modeled after vintage bomber nose art.

One of comics' most popular heroines during the Golden Age, the Black Cat debuted in 1941. She continued to appear in her own feature, and eventually, her own self-titled comic, until 1951. Her "Bombshells!" appearance — no "Cat-Tastrophe," despite its tagline — is drawn by pinup specialist Dan Veesenmeyer.

Dan, who has created several other Bombshells! previously, offers a delightful rendition of Linda (Black Cat) Turner here. Dan often adds clever details to his drawings — note the cat ears on the "C" of "Cat-Tastrophe."

During her decade-long run, the Black Cat spawned numerous imitators. One of these eventually became even better known than the original.

The Black Canary arrived on the comics scene in 1947, and soon established herself as a regular. An modernized Canary continues to star at DC Comics today, both in her own series (Green Arrow and Black Canary) and as a member of the Justice League of America. Our Black Canary "Bombshell!" is rendered in splendidly retro style by Terry Beatty, co-creator of the noiresque detective comic Ms. Tree.

Many artists shy away from drawing Black Canary because of her trademark fishnet stockings. When we discussed this commission, Terry professed his undying love for the fishnets. As you can see, especially in the link to the larger image, he rendered them with painstaking perfection.

Looking at these two gorgeous drawings, I'm grinning like the cat who swallowed the proverbial canary. Messrs. Veesenmeyer and Beatty will return with new Bombshells! next week.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wailing at the Wall of Fame

Earlier this week, the San Francisco Giants unveiled their new Wall of Fame, with plaques celebrating 43 players who have made significant contributions to the team's on-field success during its 50 years by the Bay.

As inevitably occurs with sporting honors, the Giants Wall of Fame touched off a firestorm of controversy. The criteria established by Giants management for including players on the wall were in themselves a target for debate: Only retired players who spent nine or more seasons with the Giants, or who played a minimum of five seasons in San Francisco, with at least one All-Star Game selection during that period, can be enshrined.

The retirement requirement (hey, I'm a poet!) excluded the Giants' biggest star of the last two decades, Barry Bonds, who though not playing anywhere at present is not officially retired. The Giants did, however, announce that wall space has already been reserved for Bonds and four other noteworthy current (infielder Rich Aurilia) and former (second baseman Jeff Kent and pitchers Jason Schmidt and Shawn Estes) Giants, whose plaques will be installed once they hang up their spikes.

The nine-year/five-with-an-All-Star criterion left behind such popular ex-Giants as shortstop Jose Uribe, linchpin of the San Francisco infield in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and pitcher Dave Dravecky, whose return to the mound following a bout with cancer helped inspire the pennant-winning team of 1989. Uribe, never an All-Star, left the Giants after eight years; Dravecky's fondly remembered tenure in orange and black spanned only parts of three seasons.

Most of the controversy surrounding the wall, though, points to the players who made the cut, rather than to those who missed it. Howls of dismay arose from Giants fans everywhere when Johnnie LeMaster, a light-hitting, weak-fielding shortstop so despised by the Candlestick Park faithful that he once took the field wearing a jersey with "BOO" stitched on the back, received a plaque. The Wall's creator, the Giants' soon-to-retire managing general partner Peter Magowan, shrugged and said of LeMaster, "He was here ten years. He must have done something right." Umm... what?

Given that I've been following the Giants for nearly 35 years — 70 percent of the club's San Francisco era — I feel eminently qualified to offer my own assessment of the 43 Wall-of-Famers. (I'd offer it even if I weren't so eminently qualified, because that's how I roll.) I'll break the group down into four categories, as you'll see below.

First, the No-Brainers. Without any of these, the Wall of Fame would be a travesty. Start with the five San Francisco Giants players currently in the Baseball Hall of Fame:
  • Willie Mays.
  • Willie McCovey.
  • Juan Marichal.
  • Orlando Cepeda.
  • Gaylord Perry.
'Nuff said, right? To these mortal locks, I'll add:
  • Third baseman Matt Williams (National League Most Valuable Player runner-up in 1994; three Silver Slugger Awards as a Giant).
  • 1989 NL MVP Kevin Mitchell.
  • The two clutch-hitting Clarks, Jack and Will "the Thrill."
  • 1967 Cy Young winner Mike McCormick.
Next up, the Solid Selections. All of these are choices whose worthiness no knowledgeable Giants fan should contest.
  • Bobby Bonds. At his peak in a Giants uniform.
  • Fan-favorite pitcher Vida Blue.
  • Third baseman Darrell Evans. Hard to argue with all those (mostly meaningless) home runs.
  • Felipe Alou, not a great manager but a vastly undervalued player.
  • Star relievers Robb Nen, Rod "Shooter" Beck, and Greg "Moon Man" Minton.
  • Kirk Rueter, who won more games as a southpaw than any other San Francisco pitcher.
  • J.T. Snow, one of the best defensive first basemen ever.
  • Second baseman Robby Thompson, a stalwart for a decade.
  • Third baseman Jim Ray Hart, who posted five creditable seasons before beginning a long, slow slide into mediocrity.
Then come the Questionable Calls. None of these inclusions either excites or outrages me. If I were compiling a Giants Wall of Fame, I'd probably pass on most of these, with a couple of exceptions that I'll note.
  • Infielder Jim Davenport. As manager, Davvy presided over the Giants' worst season, in 1985.
  • Starting pitchers John Burkett and Mike Krukow. Now a beloved broadcaster, Krukow had one 20-win season in a mostly mediocre Giants career. Burkett was a little better pitcher than Krukow, and also one heck of a bowler.
  • Relief pitcher Gary Lavelle, for years the Giants' bullpen stopper.
  • Catchers Tom Haller and Kirt Manwaring. I could make a good argument for Manwaring. He couldn't hit a lick, but he was widely regarded as one of the best defensive backstops of his day, as well as an expert handler of pitchers. Haller later served as the Giants' general manager.
  • Outfielders Chili Davis and Jeffrey "Hac-Man" Leonard. Chili was a better player than most people realize — he finished his career with 350 home runs. But he enjoyed most of his best seasons after he left the Giants. Hac-Man was never as good as his demeanor and reputation.
And now, the final category: What Are We, Kidding? (I believe that speaks for itself.)
  • Pitchers Jim Barr, Bob Bolin, Jeff Brantley, Scott Garrelts, Atlee Hammaker, Stu Miller, Randy Moffitt, John Montefusco, and Rick Reuschel. Most of these guys were middling pitchers who had a fair year or two amid careers of steaming nothingness. Hammaker wasn't even that good — Herb Caen, the long-time San Francisco Chronicle columnist, once theorized that the only reason Hammaker stayed on the Giants' roster was that he was then-manager Roger Craig's illegitimate son. (Herb was joshing. I think.) Reuschel was a terrific pitcher for years with the Chicago Cubs, but he was playing out the string by the time he arrived in San Francisco. He put up a couple of okay years here, but his career seasons were long behind him.
  • Infielders Chris Speier, Tito Fuentes, and the aforementioned Johnnie LeMaster. Speier was a serviceable, if thoroughly unremarkable, shortstop. Fuentes and LeMaster may have been the two worst defensive infielders ever to play for the Giants, with the notable exception of the Bob Brenly third base experiment.
  • Speaking of Brenly, slot him and fellow catcher Dick Dietz here. Brenly was a terrific leader in the clubhouse, but he was an average catcher at best, both on offense and defense. Dietz had one — count it, one — remarkable campaign, in 1970 (.300 average, 107 RBI).

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cry, the beloved Sony

Our living room television set — the imposing 35-inch Trinitron that my good friends at Jeopardy! included in my Battle of the Bay Area Brains prize package ten years ago — has given up the ghost.

It will be replaced for the nonce by its predecessor, a 32-inch Fisher that has seen little use in the decade since it retired to the master bedroom.

The Trinitron is survived by its loving siblings — a DVD player and surround-sound system that arrived along with it. It was preceded in death by its longtime companion, a Sony VAIO notebook computer.

Memorial services are pending.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Wall Street wreck

Tempted though I am to post something perspicacious yet hilarious about the current Wall Street debacle and the government's ill-conceived attempt to (mis)manage it... friends Mark Evanier and Eugene Finerman have already the work for me.

Click over to Mark's repurposed "Uncle Scam" (Mark didn't write this, but he was savvy enough to pass it along) and Eugene's "The Bear Market of A.D. 455" and "Robbing Peter to Pay Paulson" to inject your recommended daily allowance of well-observed political humor.

We simply can't get this administration out of office soon enough... without replacing them with more of the McSame.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Ain't no party like an Orthodox party

On Saturday, KJ and I attended the 20th anniversary of Glendi, the annual ethnic food fair sponsored by the local Russian Orthodox church.

Sonoma County's Russian heritage stretches back more than two centuries, when Russian traders established settlements in the area. A handful of geographic names — our primary waterway, the Russian River; the West County town of Sebastopol — serve as reminders of this historical connection.

Saint Seraphim of Sarov hosts Glendi (which means "party" in Greek) the third weekend of September every year. And every September, we see the placards all over town and say to each other, "We should go." Then other things intervene, or we simply forget. This year, we planned ahead.

The fair spotlights the food of nations where Orthodox religion is the dominant faith: Greece, Russia, the Balkans, and Eritrea. Because I spent two years in Greece during my youth, I harbor a fondness for Greek cuisine. Thus, I was looking forward to sampling some authentic Greek eats, as well as other delicacies.

Before we ventured into the food court, KJ and I stopped to view the sanctuary of Saint Seraphim, which the church is in the process of renovating. Although Saint Seraphim is culturally Russian, its architecture and iconography bears strong similarities to those of the Greek churches I often visited on Crete and in Athens. KJ had never seen anything like it, and was fascinated by the frescoes. One of the priests was leading a tour, explaining the process of fresco painting.

In the food court, we salivated over the numerous offerings. KJ enjoyed a juicy pork kabob and a tasty serving of spanakopita. I dined on a portion of perfectly roasted, sliced lamb, then dug into a plate of zigni, a spicy Eritrean beef stew that reminded me of a sharp-flavored chili, which I sopped up with a hunk of a spongy bread called ingera. After we walked around for a bit, I found room for a gyro piled high with meat, tomatoes, and cucumbers smothered in tangy tzatziki.

All of the food was spectacular — cooked fresh on the premises with obvious passion, by folks thoroughly steeped in the representative cuisines. And it was fun to watch our fellow clueless Americanos stumbling through eastern European dance steps in and around stuffing their faces.

As we departed with a package of dessert pastries for noshing later, we silently kicked ourselves for missing the Glendi experience during the previous two decades. We'll be sure to mark the calendar well in advance of next September.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

There be pirates here!

Ahoy, me hearties! Sauntering by the old schooner SwanShadow for Comic Art Friday, are ye? Well, matey, this be not just any Comic Art Friday...

...this here be Comic Art Pirates Day!

Your crusty old seadog, Cap'n Swan, will be introducin' ye to some swashbucklin' lads and lasses from the comics pages, what got a little pirate in 'em! How can ye tell? Some ye can see by their buccaneer boots — the favored footwear of well-dressed pirates everywhere. Some show their pirate nature by their flashin' steel or their blazin' pistols. Some ye can tell just by the cut o' their jib that they got pirate blood coursin' through their veins. Savvy?

Enough jaw-flappin' now... let's talk pirates!

Buccaneer boots 'n' fishnets... the Black Cat and the Black Canary definitely got pirate in 'em.

With stars tattooed on their brawny chests and buccaneer boots on their stalwart feet, Captain America and the U.S. Agent got pirate in 'em.

Misty Knight and the Black Knight — they could be black knights of the seven seas for sure.

Elektra and Black Lightning, they got pirate in 'em.

Green Arrow couldn't have more pirate in him if he tried.

Hawkeye and Lady Rawhide? Aye, pirates they be!

Lara Croft, she be a modern-day tomb-raidin' pirate.

Power Girl and Luke Cage (they call him Power Man, y'know) got pirate written all over 'em.

The Phantom and the Blonde Phantom be flyin' the Jolly Roger right enough.

Dynamo's got the boots, Nick Fury the eyepatch and pistol — ahoy, there be pirates here!

Red Sonja was a pirate before we was callin' ourselves pirates!

Now how about yerself, ye scandalous son of a biscuit?

Got a little pirate in ye?

And that there be yer Comic Art Friday. ARRRRRRR!

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Haumea ya like me now?

This just in from the International Astronomical Union: We have a new dwarf planet, and its name is Haumea.

Okay, so it's not actually new: Haumea has been floating around out there in the Kuiper Belt since whenever the solar system began. (Let's not have that argument today.) What's new is its name, its official recognition by Earth's scientific community, and its status as the solar system's fifth (so far) dwarf planet.

Those of you who haven't been following the arcane inner workings of the IAU over the past few years may have missed the announcement that we have such entities as dwarf planets. On August 24, 2006, the IAU developed — for the first time — an official definition of the word planet. (You might suppose that one of the very first things that an astronomical society would come to grips with is the definition of planet, seeing that planets are among the primary objects that astronomers study. But you would be mistaken.)

That definition excluded the ninth and outermost of the traditionally accepted planets: Pluto, discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh of Arizona's Lowell Observatory. Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet under the IAU's nomenclatural system, along with Ceres — formerly called an asteroid — and Eris, the distant body identified in 2003.

Eris (originally designated 2003 UB313), being roughly one-fourth larger than Pluto, was at first viewed by some scientists as the Sun's tenth planet. Its discovery launched a debate within the astronomical community as to whether Pluto and Eris really ought to be considered planets at all. After much wrangling, the IAU adopted its new terminology, downgrading Pluto from planet to dwarf planet, along with Eris and the aforementioned Ceres.

Makemake, discovered in 2005, joined the ranks of the dwarf planets in July of this year. Like Pluto and Haumea, the diminutive Makemake (smaller even than Pluto) is located in the Kuiper Belt, a vast expanse beyond the orbit of Neptune that is home to thousands of gigantic chunks of space debris. Astronomers conjecture that the Kuiper Belt may contain between 30 and 40 additional dwarf planets — they're still looking, and will keep the rest of us posted.

As for Haumea, our newest dwarf planet boasts several features that make it unusual. It's believed to be ovoid or elliptical in shape — think of a humongous chicken egg — unlike the other known planets and dwarf planets, all of which are spherical (more or less). Haumea rotates at high speed, leading scientists to theorize that it and its two known moons, Hi'iaka and Namaka, are leftovers from a collision involving a larger object. Haumea and its moons travel a sharply inclined orbit outside the plane of the larger planets' orbits, helping to explain why an object of its size wasn't discovered earlier.

Following its discovery in December 2004, the body now called Haumea was nicknamed "Santa" by the cheeky skywatchers at Caltech who first identified it. (Its moons, in turn, were referred to in early reports as "Rudolph" and "Blitzen.") Of course, snugger sphincters at the IAU prevailed, resulting in the little celestial family being officially named after the Hawaiian fertility goddess and two of her daughters. Like bureaucrats in other fields, the IAU top-kicks demonstrate a frustrating lack of humor.

Haumea is far too small and distant to be seen with the unaided eye, so don't strain your optic nerve trying to spot it in the night sky. Just take comfort in knowing that a friendly dwarf planet and her moons are up there, somewhere, smiling down on us all.

Astrologers, on the other hand, are infuriated.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The grapevine is silent

Norman Whitfield, one of the songwriter/producers who defined the Motown Sound in the 1960s and '70s, died yesterday. He was 68.

In case the magnitude of this loss to the musical community doesn't strike you immediately, here's a random (and by no means comprehensive) sampling of the hits Whitfield composed, usually in partnership with lyricist Barrett Strong (of "Money: That's What I Want" fame):
  • "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"
  • "Cloud Nine"
  • "Papa Was a Rolling Stone"
  • "I'm Losing You"
  • "I Wish It Would Rain"
  • "I Can't Get Next to You"
  • "Ball of Confusion"
  • "War"
  • "Smiling Faces Sometimes"
  • "Just My Imagination"
  • "Car Wash"
Not impressed yet? How about this?
  • "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"
Yeah, I thought that would do it.

Whitfield and Strong were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004. As you can see from the list above, they practically earned an entire wing all to themselves.

Thank you, Mr. Whitfield, for all of the legendary music, and the treasured memories that music evokes. The airwaves of my youth would have been an infinitely less interesting place without you.

And that's the name of that tune.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

One question

Have you ever said to yourself, "If only I could ask [insert name of noteworthy individual here] one question..."?

So have I. (I mean, I've said it to myself. Not to yourself. Clear? Moving on...)

A few of my burning queries follow.
  • To Larry King: Marriage — any advice?

  • To Mel Gibson: Did you skip all of the pages in the Bible that mention that Jesus was a Jew?

  • To Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis: How far will you need to run your legacy into the sewer before you destroy it forever?

  • To Shia LaBeouf: Why not Target?

  • To Tom Cruise: You do know that L. Ron Hubbard was just a hack genre writer trying to hustle a buck, and not, like, some kind of spiritual visionary... don't you?

  • To Jerry Seinfeld: Can you tell a joke that might actually make me laugh?

  • To Eddie Izzard: Cake, or death?

  • To Ellen Degeneres: Did you really think anyone was surprised when you came out? (Because, Mr. Wrong? So not convincing.)

  • To Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris: Any thoughts on the question I just asked Ellen?

  • To Eddie Murphy: Who are you, and what did you do with the guy who was in 48HRS and the original Beverly Hills Cop?

  • To Donald Trump: Seriously... what's up with the hair?

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Monday, September 15, 2008

This be yer four-day warnin'!

It's never too early to be practicin'...

Only four days until Talk Like a Pirate Day!

And shiver me timbers... Talk Like a Pirate Day falls on a Comic Art Friday this year! What scurvy surprises might that be bringin'?

Ye'll have to be here to see, matey!

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Friday, September 12, 2008

The last daughter of Krypton

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to my Supergirls:
  • My daughter KM, who brings her mother and me joy every day...
  • My adopted niece Alicia, who is recovering from a serious accident...
  • Alicia's little sister, my goddaughter Shelby, who, if she turns out anything like her mother, will be quite the Superwoman someday.
For me as a comics reader, Supergirl has always represented the triumph of hope and innocence. The artists and writers who chronicled her early adventures — especially the late, great Jim Mooney, who drew Kara Zor-El's stories for a decade — seemed to understand that.

As the 1980s rolled around, the editorial team at DC Comics believed that Supergirl needed to either grow up or die. So they forced her to do both: They aged her into her mid-twenties (for two decades, Supergirl held chronological stasis at a perpetual 16 or 17), then famously killed her off during 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths. The DC Universe remained without its Maid of Steel for most of the next 15 years.

Supergirl is back now, in her own monthly series. After a sketchy beginning, it appears that her creative team is slowly getting a handle on how Kara ought to be portrayed.

Like many female superheroines, Supergirl has undergone frequent costume changes over the years. My favorite of her many ensembles has always been the one she wore in the mid-1970s, which saw Kara in a V-necked blouse and shorts (the latter far more practical for flying around than her traditional skirt). That's the outfit seen here, in this jaw-dropping pencil commission by Matthew Clark, the longtime artist of DC's Outsiders and Adventures of Superman.

Jeremy Colwell — a talented artist in his own right — enjoyed Matthew's rendition of Supergirl so much that he painted this color version, displayed on his blog. Jeremy's hyper-realistic take on Matthew's pencil art is worth checking out.

Paul Abrams, whose comics credits include DC's Viper and Marvel's Avengers, Excalibur, and Savage Sword of Conan, drew this Supergirl pinup in a style that combines classic and modern approaches: The crop-top costume and sleek figure are of recent vintage, while the wide eyes recall the signature technique of Jim Mooney. Inker Bob Almond added superb finishing touches.

When Paul saw Bob's completed inks, he asked Scott Kress of Catskill Comics to color the piece digitally. Here's the sweet result of Scott's efforts.

I like Scott's approach to this piece very much. The simple, bright hues really say "comics" to me, in contrast to the darker, more densely layered computer coloring that's most often seen in today's comics. But then, I'm old-school like that.

Today would be an excellent day to give the Supergirl(s) in your life a big hug, and a "You go, Supergirl!" I'm just saying.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

A little music, Now and Then

One of the things that I hope our regular readers appreciate is that we don't often attempt to sell you stuff here at SSTOL.

We don't have ads on this blog — I'm not criticizing blogs that post ads, mind you; I'm merely observing that we don't — and I don't take up your valuable reading time by pitching products at you nonstop. Oh, sure, on occasion I'll mention a coffee I enjoy drinking or a great book that I've read, but I don't get a kickback if you run over to Starbucks or Amazon and buy something. We're just friends sharing information.

Today, however, is that rare day when I hope to persuade you to spend a few bucks. Fifteen, to be precise.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony — winners of a third-place bronze medal in International competition this past July 4th — is announcing the release of our debut CD, entitled Now and Then.

The album features an even dozen songs performed by northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus (it says so right on the CD jacket), spanning six decades of American popular music (it says that, too).

As added bonuses, the CD includes one cut each from two exceptional quartets: Realtime, the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Quartet Champions in 2005; and Late Show, whom I predict will be International Champions sometime in the not-too-distant future. (Memo to Late Show: I accept cash.)

Here's the track list:
  • Happy Together
  • Beyond the Sea
  • The Way We Were
  • Pieces of Dreams (Little Boy Lost)
  • Hey Good Lookin'
  • Surfer Girl (performed by Late Show)
  • There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here
  • This Is Some Lucky Day (with a guest appearance by Realtime)
  • And So It Goes
  • Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
  • With a Little Help From My Friends (performed by Realtime)
  • Diane
  • Little Pal
  • In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town
As I've mentioned in this space previously, Now and Then was recorded at Lucasfilm's world-famous Skywalker Ranch, which means that the audio quality is nothing short of phenomenal. If you close your eyes and listen attentively, you can hear Wookiees trilling (or whatever it is that Wookiees do) on the low notes. Even if you've heard a cappella choral recordings before, trust me — you've not heard a blend quite like this. (Even my thoroughly average singing couldn't muck this up.)

Sadly, as much as I love every SSTOL reader, I can't afford to buy you each your own copy of Now and Then. (Unless your name is Donna and you live in Stephen King's backyard, in which case, yours is in the mail.) The good news is that for a mere fifteen simoleons (plus a nominal shipping and handling charge), you can buy a copy your own darn self. And I highly recommend that you do.

So skedaddle on over to the Voices in Harmony order site and slap down your plastic. (While you're there, you can listen to some enticing preview tracks from the album.)

Tell 'em your Uncle Swan sent you, and our ace fulfillment staff will... I don't know... wave a lightsaber over your CD before they mail it. Or something. Who cares? Just go buy one. You'll be gloriously ecstatic that you did. (We will, too.)

And may the Force be with you.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Here in my car, I feel safest of all

I'm not the automobile maven in our household; my wife KJ (the proud owner of a 2009 Subaru Forester) is.

I do, however, have automotive thoughts on occasion. Usually, on my weekly two-hour drive to San Jose for chorus rehearsal.

From yesterday's Great Trek, for example...
  • In various locations around the Bay Area, I noticed several enormous charter buses with Mercedes-Benz logos on their noses. I had no idea Mercedes-Benz made buses. How have I not noticed this before? And why are so many of them on the road tonight? Was there a sale?

  • When was the last time I saw a Buick Reatta? The only person I ever new who actually owned a Reatta was one of my preacher friends. His was stolen.

  • What kind of desperate multilevel marketing flack must you be to stick a plastic business card dispenser on the tailgate of your car? The kind of desperate multilevel marketing flack who hawks this stuff, I guess.

  • Do people who drive a Nissan Rogue tend to misspell the name of their automobile the way illiterate dweebs in comic book fan forums misspell the similarly code-named female X-Man? I've often wondered whether "Rouge" had the mutant power to turn other people's cheeks cherry red.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

I gaze, therefore I drink

Today's edition of SSTOL is fueled in part by Starbucks Gazebo Blend coffee, which the folks behind the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady describe as "created for summertime."

It seems a mite peculiar to be quaffing this particular brew on the first truly autumnal day here in Wine Country — dark, densely overcast, and downright chilly (only 57 degrees, and it's almost noon) — but it's what I have on hand.

Atmospherics aside, it still drinks quite well.

Gazebo Blend is an amalgam of East African coffees, which suits my tastes perfectly. Kenya, my all-time favorite Starbucks coffee, is native to the same region (and likely includes some of the same varietals). Gazebo shares some of Kenya's bright, acidic, citrus-like character, but it strikes my palate as richer, deeper in flavor, and slightly less sharp than Kenya. That makes Gazebo neither better nor worse than my old standby; it's merely a similar-yet-different sort of contrast.

What it lacks in Kenya's distinctive tang, Gazebo more than makes up in comforting drinkability. Starbucks suggests that Gazebo translates nicely into iced coffee, and I can well imagine that it would — although it seems a waste to me to suppress the flavor of excellent coffee by burying it in a blended drink. That's what the house blend is for.

Alas, Gazebo Blend is one of Starbucks' seasonal offerings, and I don't believe it's available at this moment. (I'm working toward the end of a bag I bought last month.) But toss a note in your Google Calendar to watch for its return next summer. If you like your coffee snappy and sunny, you'll get a kick out of Gazebo Blend.

Even if you don't own a gazebo.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Now that's a GRAND slam!

Congratulations to Gary Sheffield of the Detroit Tigers, who tonight hit the 250,000th home run in Major League Baseball history — a base-loaded shot off Gio Gonzalez of the Oakland Athletics.

How fitting, that the quarter-millionth homer should be a grand slam. And how equally fitting that it was struck by Sheffield, a player with more than a soupçon of flair for the dramatic. (Not always in a good way.)

Considering how long baseball has been the national pastime, it seems odd to me that it's taken until almost the end of the 2008 season to reach this milestone. Then again, baseball's current love affair with the long ball is still only a few decades old. When I was watching the game as a kid, a guy who hit 20 home runs a year was viewed as a power hitter. That same slugger would be a lightweight today, in an era when 40- and 50-homer seasons are not unusual.

Wonder whether the game will survive to reach the half-million mark.

I'm pretty sure that I won't.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Brown paper packages tied up with strings

It's always nice to be noticed.

This week, the fine folks at Comic Art Fans — which hosts the online galleries of hundreds of comic art collectors, including yours truly — graciously showcased your Uncle Swan as their Premium Member of the Week. (Anyone can post a gallery at CAF without cost; Premium Members are the folks who help support the site via a nominal annual contribution.) Yesterday's CAF newsletter featured a brief interview, conducted via e-mail, about me and my comic art hobby.

The toughest question I'm ever asked about my collection — and of course, the CAF interviewer asked it — is, "Which is your favorite piece?" I'm always tempted to answer, "The one I received most recently." I always fall a little bit in love with the newest addition to my gallery — I think most collectors (regardless of what they collect) do. Beyond that, it's a difficult call. Every picture tells a story, as Rod Stewart once observed, and it's no easy task to select the story that moves me the most. Every artwork I own, and in particular, every piece that has been created for me personally, occupies its own little realm of favoritism in my heart.

Complicating the matter is the fact that my collection is really several distinct collections united only by my ownership. There are my two theme galleries, Common Elements and Bombshells!; my character galleries, highlighted by my Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Black Panther and Storm collections; and the abundance of art that doesn't fall into one of these categories. I have favorites in each of these. Attempting to compare them is like deciding whether I prefer pizza or sushi.

So, here are a few of my favorites. They aren't my only favorites. Ask me tomorrow, and I might compose an entirely different list.

"Maces High" (Thunderstrike and Hawkman)
Pencils by Keith Pollard
Inks by Joe Rubinstein

Why it's a favorite: Keith Pollard has been one of my favorite comic artists since I first discovered his work in the late '70s. This assignment was one of the first commissions Keith accepted when he returned to drawing after a decade-long layoff. He totally rocked the execution of the scenario, packing in an incredible level of detail. Joe Rubinstein, one of modern comics' greatest inkers and another personal favorite, finished Keith's creation in exceptional style.

Wonder Woman

Pencils and inks by Geof Isherwood

Why it's a favorite: As Comic Art Friday regulars know, I loves me some Wonder Woman, and I also love the work of artist Geof Isherwood. Thus, we have two great tastes that taste great together. Geof has created a number of spectacular pieces for me (his Suicide Squad commission was featured in Back Issue magazine), inked several others that he didn't pencil (including a jaw-dropping Wonder Woman scene penciled by Michael Jason Paz), and is a terrific person in addition to his monumental talent. His Diana is so breathtakingly lifelike that she leaps off the page. Plus, Geof gave her peculiar shoes.

Spider-Man and Mary Jane
Pencils and inks by Bob McLeod

Why it's a favorite: Comics veteran Bob McLeod infused this pairing of my boyhood hero and his lady love with such joie de vivre that it makes me grin like a fat man at a buffet every time I look at it. Joe Quesada can go take a long swing off a short web.

"Jetpack Jockeys" (Adam Strange and the Rocketeer)
Pencils and inks by Michael Peters

Why it's a favorite: Heavy Metal artist Michael Peters draws the finest Rocketeer this side of the late, great Dave Stevens, the megatalent who created the character. I adore this piece so much that it's on permanent display in my living room. It's so cool that my wife doesn't even mind having it there. (At least, I don't think she does.)

Pencils by Mel Rubi
Inks by Bob Almond

Why it's a favorite: Speaking of Heavy Metal — the film this time — I believe that I'm the only comic art collector in the universe with a gallery of original Taarna commissions. This character speaks to me in ways that I can't fully explain, even though she never utters a word throughout her segment of the legendary animated classic. Mel Rubi's dramatic pose makes this, without question, the most visually arresting Taarna image that I've ever seen. And she's all mine. Bwah-ha-ha!

Superman and Wonder Woman
Pencils by Mike Wieringo
Inks by Richard Case

Why it's a favorite: Because I sorely miss Ringo, a phenomenal artist taken from us far too soon. It's charming and winsome and all kinds of beautiful... just like everything Mike ever drew.

"Blind Man's Bluff" (Daredevil and Doctor Mid-Nite)
Pencils by Ron Wilson
Inks by Bob Almond

Why it's a favorite: Bronze Age star Ron Wilson — one of Marvel Comics' busiest cover artists in the 1970s and '80s, and the regular penciler on the fondly remembered series Marvel Two-in-One — created this powerful, hyperkinetic matchup of comics' two sightless adventurers. Bob Almond, founder of the Inkwell Awards, polished Ron's pencils to a superheroic sheen.

Mary Marvel
Pencils by Steve Mannion

Why it's a favorite: Because she's just so darned cute.

Every time I page through my comic art collection, I hear Julie Andrews singing. Some days, these exquisite images form the thinly drawn boundary between sanity and madness...

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad...
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, September 04, 2008

Hero of the Day: The real Crash Davis

If you've seen the movie Bull Durham, you'll remember Crash Davis, the character played by Kevin Costner. Crash is a grizzled veteran catcher who, during the course of the film, sets the career record for home runs in baseball's minor leagues... largely due to the fact that he's spent all but three weeks of his lengthy career in the minors.

Yesterday, after more than 7,300 professional at-bats, baseball's real-life Crash Davis hit his first major league home run for the San Francisco Giants.

And in the Church of Baseball, there was much rejoicing.

Unlike the cinemythical Crash, Scott McClain is not a catcher; he's a utility infielder who can play either third or first base. And, also unlike Crash, Scott doesn't hold the career minor league home run record. (According to San Jose Mercury News columnist Andrew Baggarly, that honor goes to the sadly unheralded Russell "Buzz" Arlett, who hit 432 home runs in the minors back in the 1920s and '30s.)

McClain does, however, rank first among active players with 291 minor-league taters, not including the 71 he smacked during a four-year stint in Japan.

Yesterday, after a roster-expansion call-up by San Francisco, the 36-year-old McClain crushed a 2-2 slider from Colorado Rockies pitcher Steven Register over the left-field wall at Denver's Coors Field for his first round-tripper in The Show.

McClain has had brief stints in the majors before. He played in nine games for the Tampa Bay Don't-Call-Them-Devil Rays back in 1998, and 13 more with the Chicago Cubs three seasons ago. Last year, during his previous cup-o'-coffee with the Giants, Scott got into eight games, in which he logged a grand total of two base hits, both singles.

So far this week, since returning to the G-Men from the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies, McClain is three-for-five with three runs batted in and, of course, his first major league homer.

You've gotta love a guy who, at age 36 and with any realistic shot at a long-term major league career about a half-decade back in the rear-view mirror of life, just keeps plugging away out of sheer determination and passion for the game.

Atta boy, Crash!

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

In a world without the Movie Trailer Guy...

Shocked, stunned, and saddened I am this morning to learn of the death of voiceover superstar Don LaFontaine, better known to millions of television viewers and movie attendees as "the Movie Trailer Guy." He was 68 years old.

LaFontaine's booming, gravelly, sonorous-yet-compelling voice graced literally hundreds of motion picture trailers and advertisements during his lengthy and lucrative career. And when I say "lucrative," I'm not just tossing around random adjectives. LaFontaine was recognized by the Screen Actors Guild as the single busiest actor in the history of the union, meaning that he fulfilled more contracts for acting work — and yes, voiceovers are acting — than any other member of SAG, an organization whose membership is 90 to 95 percent unemployed at any given moment.

The guy was so huge in the industry that he was driven in a chauffeured limousine to his voiceover jobs. Now that's stardom.

LaFontaine's celebrity grew to the point that Geico Insurance recently featured him on camera in one of its quirky commercials, in which he stood at a microphone in a woman's kitchen, providing his trademark commentary behind her tale of "Geico to the rescue." It was a fitting affirmation of the ubiquity LaFontaine had achieved in 21st century American popular culture.

Around our house, we often referred to LaFontaine as "the 'In a world...' guy," because so many of his trailers began with that trademark phrase... "In a world where evil triumphs..." "In a world where man fights for survival..." "In a world where life is cheap and death is expensive..."

The irony of LaFontaine's passing at this particular moment in time is that I've been listening to his work extensively in recent months. I haven't discussed this here much (if at all), but I'm currently studying voice acting, with a view toward a new career as a voiceover artist. Because LaFontaine resided at the pinnacle of the profession, I've been reviewing his demo reels (along with those of dozens of other voice actors) to learn the subtleties of his inflection, expression, and timing.

What I soon learned is that while LaFontaine was blessed with a magnificent natural instrument — you can't just pop over to Wal-Mart or Target and buy a voice like that — it was his skills as an actor that gave him transcendence. He understood how to turn a phrase perfectly, how to lean into (or back away from) a word to enhance its meaning, how to add character or clarity to his tone at just the right time and in just the right way. At the end of a Don LaFontaine trailer, you wanted to see that movie — and getting you to buy tickets was, after all, the man's job.

A few years ago, LaFontaine teamed up with four other voiceover artists who specialize in film trailers (John Leader, Nick Tate, Al Chalk, and Mark Elliott) for a fun bit of business entitled "Five Guys in a Limo." This hilarious short film offers both a clever slice of self-parody by LaFontaine and his colleagues, and a dramatic testimonial to the evocative power of the human voice. If you've never seen it, dash over to YouTube this very second and check it out.

In a world where true talent often struggles to be heard over the cacaphony of mediocrity, Don LaFontaine was The Voice. I admired his work. And I'll miss him.

(This post is not yet rated.)

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Let's go to Mars!

Were he still living, author Edgar Rice Burroughs would be celebrating his birthday today. Which in itself would be remarkable, as he would be 133 years old.

Burroughs is best remembered as the creator of Lord Greystoke, known more familiarly as Tarzan. Oddly enough, although I was a tremendous Burroughs fan in my youth, I was never into Tarzan all that much. In fact, I don't believe I ever read a single one of Burroughs's Tarzan novels. The whole white-nobleman-running-around-the-jungle-in-a-loincloth thing just never did much for me.

My Burroughs obsession focused on his series of epic fantasies set on a highly fictionalized Mars, which Burroughs called Barsoom. Beginning with A Princess of Mars in 1912, Burroughs wrote eleven Barsoomian novels, depicting a bizarre world populated by monstrous, often multi-limbed beasts; green-skinned, four-armed Martian warriors; and a red-hued humanoid race whose beautiful, traditionally nude females reproduce by laying eggs. (I did say bizarre, didn't I?)

Most, but not all, of the Barsoom stories feature an Earthman named John Carter, who arrives on Mars by way of astral projection, and his Martian lady love Dejah Thoris. My favorite book in the series, however, is The Chessmen of Mars, whose lead character is Carter and Dejah's daughter Tara. The plot revolves around a complicated Barsoomian version of chess known as jetan, the byzantine rules for which Burroughs appended to the end of the book.

Many of Burroughs's Barsoomian tales have fallen into public domain, and can thus be reproduced without cost or copyright infringement. If you're interested in sampling a few, you can download several of them as free e-books from Project Gutenberg, that magnificent virtual repository of public domain literature. I'll warn you in advance: Burroughs wrote in the florid prose common to genre literature in the early 20th century, so his style can be a chore to wade through until you get accustomed to it. And, to be blunt, his approach to gender and racial issues seems positively Neanderthal from an enlightened modern perspective. The imaginative stories and colorfully detailed worlds Burroughs created, however, make the Barsoom books well worth reading.

If you're unfamiliar with his work, you'll be amazed at how much of the sci-fi and fantasy fiction you know and love bears the stamp of Burroughs's influence. And, if all you know of his oeuvre is Tarzan, you'll find the adventures of John Carter and his progeny a refreshing — and, in my opinion, far more intriguing — spin on similar themes.

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