Friday, November 28, 2008

Same girl, different universe

Parallel universes are among fantasy fiction's oldest tropes. From Murray Leinster's classic 1933 story "Sidewise in Time" to the original series Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror," from David Gerrold's time-warping novel The Man Who Folded Himself to such films as Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run, popular culture is fascinated by the concept of alternative realities existing side by side with each other, or spinning out of random circumstances that evolve in slightly different ways.

Comics have proven fertile ground for parallel universe stories. Indeed, one could categorize almost every comic book tale as an exercise in alternative reality, in the sense that the comic book world is often like our own, but different in a few key elements (i.e., the existence of superpowered humanoids who wear colorful costumes).

Both of the major comics publishers have made parallel universes central to their stock in trade. Marvel has supplemented its mainstream Marvel Universe (sometimes referred to as the Earth-616 Universe) with several alternate realities, most notably the parallel worlds in which the company's Ultimate, Marvel Adventures, and A-Next (including The Amazing Spider-Girl) series take place. DC went hog-wild with its Multiverse concept during the 1960s and '70s, "buried" the theme with the landmark 1980s series Crisis on Infinite Earths, and resurrected it anew a couple of years ago in the weekly comic 52.

Today, the Comic Art Friday spotlight shines on an artwork that beautifully illustrates the parallel universe concept. Michael Dooney, best known for his work on various Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles projects, lends his pencil to this whimsical pairing of Supergirl and her opposite number, Power Girl.

The casual comics reader might not, at first glance, recognize any connection between these two heroines. Aside from the fact that both are attractive blondes, they appear markedly different. Supergirl is most often depicted as youthful — her current incarnation is a high school-age teen — of average height and build (slightly on the diminutive side, even); with long hair and a sunny, coltish personality. Power Girl is generally older — late twenties at least, or thirtyish — is tall and muscular, sports shorter hair, and presents a brusque, militaristic demeanor.

And, of course, there's the infamous Power Girl bustline, which began as artist Wallace Wood's personal in-joke: "I'll keep drawing them bigger until someone tells me to stop." Supergirl, depending on the creative team of the moment, usually possesses more modest endowments.

All of these differences aside, the truth is that Supergirl and Power Girl are alternate versions of one another. Prior to DC's destruction of its Multiverse, Power Girl represented to Earth-Two (the home of the World War II-era heroes known as the Justice Society of America) what Supergirl is to Earth-One (the "mainstream" DC universe, in which the modern-day incarnations of its archetypal heroes reside). Each was the female Kryptonian-born cousin of her respective universe's Superman, with the repertoire of super-abilities pertaining thereto.

It's never been clear to me exactly why the Earth-One Kara Zor-El (Supergirl's Kryptonian name) is an average-sized adolescent, while her alternate self (whose real name is Kara Zor-L — note the slight adjustment in spelling) is an Amazon-like woman a decade or so older. I'm sure it's been explained somewhere along the line, but I must have missed that issue. I don't feel badly about that, though. Over the decades, even the DC editorial staff hasn't always seemed certain of exactly who or what either Supergirl or Power Girl is supposed to be, in terms of history and heritage.

One thing, however, is certain...

...Michael Dooney draws them both very nicely.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Gratitude Times Five

I can scarcely believe this is the fifth edition of our annual alphabetical outpouring of TurkeyFest appreciation here at SSTOL. There were moments when we didn't think we'd live to see this day. But here we are, on the fourth Thursday of another cool, misty Wine Country November, celebrating the kindnesses that the good grace of the Almighty has brought us since last we tallied. Let's launch into this year's 26 nuggets of thankfulness, what say?

America's Test Kitchen
. Thanks to bow-tied Christopher Kimball and his charming, cheerful staff of foodies, I can pretend that I actually know how to cook.

Bombshells!, my gallery of Golden Age superheroines masquerading as vintage bomber nose art pinup girls. Thanks to all of the artists who created new Bombshells! for me this year: Dan Veesenmeyer, Gene Gonzales, Anthony Carpenter, Terry Beatty, Jeffrey Moy, and my friend Bob Almond.

ClubUBT, the online poker and blackjack room where I'm exercising my cardplaying muscles these days. It'll still be legal after the dimwits in Congress ban every other avenue.

Dr. Greg Lyne, the man who teaches me — and 90 of my close personal friends — how to make music every Tuesday night. You're the Man, Maestro.

Ethiopia Sidamo. That's some mighty fine coffee there, Starbucks.

Friday Night Stand-Up. There's no more hilarious way to kick off the weekend than with Comedy Central's mini-marathon of funny men and women shocking the microphone.

Girls — specifically mine, KJ and KM. They make the universe a better place just by being in it. That goes for my adopted niece Shelby, too.

My Heavenly Father, who daily provides more blessings than I can list.

International Orange, the color of the paint adorning my favorite man-made marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge. Driving across it is wicked cool, even after all these years.

Judge shows. Here's to the black-robed arbiters of justice who provide us with so much entertainment, sage wisdom, and gratis legal counsel: Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Marilyn Milian, Judge Alex, Judge Greg Mathis, Judge Hatchett (sorry you got canceled, Your Honor), Judge Christina, Judge Penny, Judge Karen, and Judge David Young. You all rock.

Kirkland, the house brand of Costco, the home of conspicuous consumption. I need twenty of something, and I need it right now.

LinCYcum. You're the baddest pitcher in the National League, Timmy. Don't go changing.

Meat Loaf. Because some days, nothing gets me through the madness like Marvin Lee Aday, roaring at maximum volume in all his sweaty, bombastic, Wagnerian, Jim Steinman-produced glory. What's for dinner? Meat Loaf.

Nashville, Tennessee, where Voices in Harmony and I spent a week enjoying Southern hospitality, and from which we brought home third place International bronze medals. Thanks, y'all.

Obama. That doesn't even need commentary.

Parker, Robert B. My favorite author. There's a new Spenser paperback on my desk, which I plan to dive into today.

Quantum of Solace. Not quite up to the incredible level of Casino Royale, but still pretty cool. Can it really be a bad year when we get a new Bond film?

Raley's, our local supermarket. We've shopped there for the past 20 years. We're on a first-name basis with most of the staff. We probably know the merchandise better than some of the employees.

Sushi. Tiny little rice-clouds of culinary heaven. My favorites: tako, unagi, ebi, hamachi, and good toro, when I can get it.

Time. I believe it was Augustine who said, "What is time? If no man asks me, I know; but if any man asks, clearly I know not."

United Health Care. As big a pain in the tuchus as they have been to deal with — and they have been a colossal pain — I'm glad they've paid for everything they've paid for. I don't know how we would have.

Voicetrax San Francisco (which is actually in Sausalito... but then, San Francisco International Airport is in San Bruno, so I guess it works), where I'm learning the fine art of voice acting from some of the most talented folks in the industry. Thanks to all of the coaches who hammered knowledge into my cranium this year: Chuck Kourouklis, Frank Coppola, Thom Pinto, Lisa Baney, and the amazing Samantha Paris. And a special thanks to Shirley the office manager, for figuring out why I belonged there.

Wonder Woman. Princess Diana of Themyscira rules.

Xander Berkeley, that fine American character actor who lends class to every film and TV show in which he appears. You may not recognize his name, but I guarantee that you know his face.

Yahoo! I'm glad I didn't own any of their stock, though.

Zorro. Johnston McCulley's masked hero resurfaced this year in a terrific comic book series from Dynamite Entertainment, written by Matt Wagner and drawn by Francesco Francavilla. Great read.

I'm thankful, friend reader, for your time, your attention, and your comments and e-mails throughout the year. May you and your loved ones — or someone else's loved ones if you don't have your own — find much for which to be grateful on this day of gratitude.

Slather an extra ladle of gravy on your turkey and stuffing. Tell your cardiologist that your Uncle Swan said it's okay.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Seven argument foods: North Bay edition

A while back, Mark Evanier offered the observation that there are seven foods that immediately engender impassioned argument whenever gourmands debate the question, "Where can you get the best...?"
  1. Hamburgers
  2. Pizza
  3. Chinese food
  4. Barbecue
  5. Philly cheesesteaks
  6. Hot dogs
  7. Clam chowder
I've been pondering Mark's list for the past several days. Now, I'm prepared to take a stab at starting a food fight.

Hamburgers. I'm not a serious burger connoisseur. In fact, I'd never order one in a restaurant unless it was the only item on the menu. But if I had a sudden craving for a steaming slab of ground cow, I'd go to Mike's at the Crossroads in Cotati. Mike's serves ginormous, sloppy gutbusters made from Harris Ranch beef, with a sumptuous array of fixings. For years, Mike's gimmick was that they didn't serve French fries. ("Mike don't like 'em," went the tagline.) Now that original owner Mike Condrin has sold the joint, you can get fries one day each week, I'm told.

Pizza. Around here, there's only one contender: Mary's Pizza Shack, a local chain that makes truly awesome pizza. The problem with Mary's pizza is that it doesn't travel well. The thin crust gets soggy quickly, so it's a poor choice for takeout. (We usually opt for Round Table, the big West Coast chain, if we're taking pizza home.) But if you're going to hang out in a pizza joint and eat off plates with a knife and fork, Mary's your girl.

Chinese food. Like most places in California, we have Chinese restaurants on practically every corner. The best in the area, however, isn't in town — it's twenty miles down the freeway in Novato. Jennie Low's, located in the Vintage Oaks shopping center on U.S. 101 in north Marin, serves some of the most sublime Chinese food I've eaten. And I've eaten a small planet in Chinese. Jennie opened a second location in Petaluma last year, but I haven't yet tried that one.

Barbecue. For whatever reason, great barbecue joints don't last long in this foodie mecca. Three excellent places — Richardson's Ribs, Pack Jack BBQ, and Terry's — have all gone the way of the passenger pigeon in recent years. The best of what's left is Porter Street Barbeque (yeah, that's how they spell it) in Cotati. Porter Street does a very nice job with ribs and tri-tip, though I've noticed the quality isn't quite as consistent since their cook passed away suddenly a few years back.

Philly cheesesteaks. Outside of the big chain sandwich shops like Quizno's, I don't know of any place around here that specializes in cheesesteaks, other than a vendor at the Sonoma County Fair that offers a decent version for two weeks every summer. If I were dying for authentic cheesesteak, I'd drive down to the East Bay and sniff out an outlet of a local chain called The Cheesesteak Shop. I've eaten on several occasions at their Pleasanton location, and it's the real deal.

Hot dogs. For me, there's only one place to eat a hot dog, and that's at a baseball game. The concession stands at AT&T Park in San Francisco serve as good a frankfurter as one could ask. Usually, though, I opt for either the Polish sausage or the Louisiana hot links. Both are outstanding. If you insist on sticking with the traditional, you can't go wrong with the standard Giants Dog.

Clam chowder. When you live less than an hour's drive (in non-commute traffic) from San Francisco, the West Coast capital of clam chowder, this one's a tough call. I guess I'll have to vote for Lucas Wharf in Bodega Bay. It's been quite a while since we've eaten there, but I recall the clam chowder with particular fondness.

Them's my choices. Let the chow-slinging begin!

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Monday, November 24, 2008

What's Up With That? #67: That's why it's called the Big House

Because it's essential that Sonoma County continue to solidify its reputation as the pedophilia capital of North America...

A teacher at one of the local high schools was arrested this weekend, charged with allegedly engineering an illicit rendezvous with a teenage girl.

Scott Dietlin, a 34-year-old history and economics teacher at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, was arraigned today in San Mateo County on three felony counts.

According to Burlingame police, Dietlin made a connection with two underage female residents of that community via their MySpace page. When the girls reported Dietlin's untoward e-mails to local authorities, a police detective continued the conversations until Saturday's scheduled meeting.

I'm guessing that Mr. Dietlin was a tad surprised when his online dream date turned up wearing a badge and Police Special.

Ironically, Casa Grande High's nickname among local kids is "the Big House," a pun on its Spanish name. As my daughter KM said of Dietlin's misadventure...

"He'll be going from the Big House to the Big House."

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Elementary, my dear

As great as my love for comics is, my fondness for mystery fiction — more specifically, detective novels — is a close runner-up.

My boyhood reading experiences encompassed the adventures of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew (that's right — I read Nancy Drew books, and I'm man enough to admit it), Encyclopedia Brown, and Robert Arthur's Three Investigators. I soon graduated to more mature works: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Donald E. Westlake (and his various pseudonyms), Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, and my youthful writing guru, Isaac Asimov. (Most people remember Asimov as a science fiction giant, but I admired his mystery stories even more, especially his series about the men's dining club known as the Black Widowers.)

Today, I eagerly devour every new work by my contemporary faves in the mystery field: Robert B. Parker, Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, Karen Kijewski, and Steve Hamilton.

Mysteries, for whatever reason, have rarely caught on in a big way with comic book readers — ironic, really, given that one of the world's largest comics publishers derives its name from the title Detective Comics. There have been some excellent mystery comics over the years, from Will Eisner's genre-spanning The Spirit (currently being revived by writers Sergio Aragonés and Mark Evanier) to Mike W. Barr's clever, Ellery Queen-esque Maze Agency. Most pure mystery titles, however, have remained cult hits at best... if they could be called "hits" at all.

Today's featured artwork from my Common Elements gallery salutes two of comics' finest detectives. Sporting the trenchcoat and pistol is hard-boiled private eye Ms. Tree; her malleable companion is Ralph Dibny, better known as the Elongated Man. Terry Beatty, who co-created Ms. Tree with popular mystery scribe Max Allan Collins of Road to Perdition fame, does the artistic honors.

Aside from her status as perhaps comics' grittiest P.I., Ms. Tree (you get that joke, yes?) holds the distinction of being one of the medium's most complex female leads. Widowed in her debut tale, Ms. Tree spends many of her subsequent adventures ferreting out — and gunning down — members of the mob that executed her husband. During the course of her career, Ms. Tree (whose first name, interestingly enough, is the same as my own) juggles a pregnancy, incarceration, a stay in a mental hospital, and a slew of weighty sociopolitical issues. Her history in print is equally convoluted, with four different companies having published her stories throughout the 1980s and '90s.

The Elongated Man appeared during the 1960s and '70s in the back pages of the aforementioned Detective Comics. (The main stories featured some guy who dressed like a bat.) Whimsical Ralph and his more level-headed wife Sue — who didn't have superpowers — solved mysteries together, like Nick and Nora Charles in the classic Thin Man films. (Ralph's code name is a play on "Thin Man" — another commonality he shares with Ms. Tree.) The Elongated Man mysteries were often "fair play," meaning that the reader could solve them from the clues in the story. Stretchable Ralph (his abilities derived from a soft drink called Gingold) was also a longtime member of the Justice League of America. DC Comics, in one of its typically boneheaded moves of late, recently killed off both Ralph and Sue. Now they occasionally appear together as "ghost detectives."

Terry Beatty's Common Elements entry has a backstory as colorful as that of its two protagonists. Terry created a previous version of this artwork that he subsequently posted on his blog. After looking at the image, however, he decided that he wasn't satisfied with how it had turned out — specifically, he saw some issues with the Ms. Tree figure he had drawn. So, rather than shipping the art to me, he started over from scratch and completely redrew the piece.

I've seen a scan of Terry's original work, and I would have been just as pleased with that iteration as I am with the final version. But I thought it commendable that he refused to release the commission until it met his professional standards. While I'm sure that Terry would defer the acknowledgment, that kind of dedication deserves notice.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Six degrees of me

Yesterday, I was reading the obituaries on the local newspaper's Web site. (I check the funeral notices frequently, just to be sure I'm not listed in them.) Included was mention of the passing of a man whom I did not know personally, but whose younger sister and I were in the same high school graduating class 30 years ago.

When I pointed this out to my wife, KJ told me that this man's sister-in-law works in her office.

My daughter KM, hearing our conversation, observed that the man's son is her classmate at the junior college.

What are the odds that one random individual whom none of us ever met would have a different line of direct connection to each member of my family?

Four centuries ago — give or take a decade or so — John Donne wrote:
No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
As well as if promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were.
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Or, as Uncle Walt told us so many times...

It's a small world after all.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Another year, another injustice

Once again, People Magazine has stubbornly refused to acknowledge my animal magnetism by naming me the Sexiest Man Alive.

Apparently, animal magnetism counts, though, because this year's honoree is Wolverine.

Excuse me while I go sharpen my claws, and work on my Australian accent.

If the folks from Sexiest Middle-Aged Fat Guy Alive call while I'm out, take a message.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Thirty years ago today, a madman named Jim Jones led 909 of his disciples — known collectively as the Peoples Temple — to mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. Nearly 300 of the dead were children.

The method of self-destruction chosen by the brainwashed masses (though not Jones himself, who put himself out of the world's misery with a bullet to the brain) lent an enduring new metaphor to the American vernacular: "Drinking the Kool-Aid."

Ironically, it wasn't Kool-Aid, but instead a similar powdered drink called Flavor-Aid, that delivered the fatal cyanide.

History makes mistakes like that sometimes.

The day before the mass suicide, Jones's personal security force, the self-styled Red Brigade, murdered U.S. Congressman Leo J. Ryan, two NBC News staff members, a photographer from the San Francisco Examiner, and a Peoples Temple member on the airstrip at Port Kaituma, Guyana. Ryan, representing California's 11th District, had led a delegation of journalists to Jonestown to investigate allegations of abuse within the Peoples Temple, whose followers had relocated from the Bay Area to Guyana in the summer of 1977. As Ryan and his party attempted to flee with 15 Peoples Temple defectors, the Red Brigade opened fire.

Ryan's assistant, 28-year-old Jackie Speier, survived the attack, along with about a dozen other members of the delegation. Speier suffered five gunshot wounds, including shattered bones in her right arm and leg. Today, Speier represents California's 12th District in Congress.

Jonestown was the biggest news story in the Bay Area since the 1906 earthquake — until ten days later, when Dan White, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in their offices at San Francisco City Hall.

I remember the events of what came to be known as the Jonestown massacre vividly. Because my family was both black and religious (the largest proportion of Peoples Temple members were African-American), relatives from all over the country called our house on the day the news broke, fearing that somehow we had been involved in the tragedy. Clearly, we were not.

909 other people — plus Leo Ryan and the four who died alongside him — were.

Until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the deaths at Jonestown represented the largest single-event loss of American lives resulting from human causes.

Three decades later, the massacre remains burned with laser-like intensity into the memories of those of us who lived in the Bay Area at the time. Jonestown stands as a permanent reminder of the seductive nature of power, as well as the dangers of blind faith.

At least the Kool-Aid company recovered.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

"Unwrap the Holidays" on Saturday, November 29

So, there you sit, planning your post-Thanksgiving weekend assault on your friendly neighborhood megamall, and you're thinking...

Okay, I've got Black Friday covered. But what am I going to do with myself on Saturday?

Have I got an idea for you, bunkie!

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, anyway.

Voices in Harmony, Northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, is hosting its annual holiday music spectacular on Saturday, November 29, at the historic California Theatre in beautiful downtown San Jose. It's a 3 p.m. matinee concert, so you'll have plenty of time to hit the morning sales before the show and the nightlife afterward. Is that strategic, or what?

In addition to VIH, you'll enjoy the scintillating sounds of our sister chorus, Pride of the Pacific, and the crowd-pleasing male quartet Late Show. It's more entertainment than any one afternoon should offer, quite frankly, but we'll let you come because we like you. I can't think of a better way to begin the festive season — at least, not one that you could share with Grandma, Grandpa, and Cousin Fred and his new trophy wife.

You can order advance tickets via this link. At $35 for excellent seats so close to the stage you can practically feel the body heat, and a mere $25 for almost-as-excellent seats a few rows further back, this fusillade of holiday cheer would be cheap at twice the price. (If you feel obligated to pay extra, I'm positive that our treasurer will not object.)

Tell the ticket people that your Uncle Swan sent you, and you'll probably get a warm handshake and a sincere smile of Yuletide gratitude.

Incidentally, this year's concert is entitled "Unwrap the Holidays." I wonder whose brilliant idea that was...?

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

What's Up With That? #66: Design on a Dyme

This apparently happened several months ago, but I first read about it yesterday over at Rocketship of the Mind (thanks, Sean!). So it's not really news, but if I'm just now hearing about it, it's news to me, right?

My wife KJ loves watching the endless array of home improvement programs on HGTV. One of her favorite shows there is Design on a Dime, in which teams of interior decorators reinvent rooms in people's homes using a maximum budget of $1,000. (I know, they should have entitled it Design on a Grand. Don't ask me why they didn't.)

At least, KJ used to enjoy that show until a year or two ago, when several of the featured designers were replaced with newer talent whom she didn't like as well.

Now, I've come to find out that one of Design on a Dime's former stars, one-time Disney Imagineer Lee Snijders, has embarked on a new career... a purveyor of Internet pornography.

Lee and his paramour, a porn star-turned-photographer who goes by the name Jett Angel (I say "goes by the name" because I'm making the not-too-audacious leap of logic that there isn't a Mr. and Mrs. Angel somewhere in the American heartland who named their offspring Jett, thereby predestining her to a future in adult entertainment) have launched a Web portal called Goth Rock Girls, which according to a published press release, is:
an 'all-girl' punk rock porn site shot in hi-definition with a high end 'reality' format that shows the two producers as a power couple who bring these girls to life as they hold their cameras and direct the action.
Which is probably more than you wanted to know.

One can only wonder what thought process would take a guy from successful ventures in amusement park design, domicile decor, and mainstream cable television to creating... well... whatever that description was in the preceding paragraph. Fortunately, Snijders hastens to explain:
I tried to continue my relationship with HGTV by pitching them show ideas, but unfortunately they were not interested and the company did not renew my contract. I found myself auditioning for design shows with models and actors posing as designers while my competitors got their own shows on HGTV. With the housing market crash and being stereotyped as a budget designer, I stayed flexible, open minded, and moved on.
That's quite a move, all right.

I'm hoping that Lee didn't intend "flexible" as a double entendre. Then again, perhaps he did.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Mary makes me Marvel

Given that Veterans Day was earlier this week, this might be an appropriate Comic Art Friday on which to check out one of my popular Bombshells! pinup commissions.

Then again, is there really an inappropriate time to check out some Bombshells! art?

I think not.

That, of course, is Mary Marvel, the World's Mightiest Maiden, who's riding that surprise package for the Axis. (Clicking on the image will take you to my Comic Art Fans gallery for a closer look.) Artist Jeffrey Moy, who illustrated an acclaimed five-year run on DC Comics' Legion of Super-Heroes, designed and drew Mary's show-stopping Bombshells! entry.

I've written at length about my Mary Marvel fixation on previous Comic Art Fridays, but there's an aspect of Mary's supremacy that I don't believe I've touched on before. Mary Marvel represents, from my perspective, the perfect realization of the Captain Marvel archetype — in a nutshell, a kid who turns into a superhero by uttering a magic word.

Captain Marvel never really worked for me, as he did for the millions of comic book readers in the 1940s who made the Big Red Cheese the most popular costumed hero of the day, outselling even Superman. While the concept of Captain Marvel is brilliant — doesn't every kid want to be a superhero? — the actualization leaves something to be desired.

When Billy Batson says "SHAZAM!" he doesn't become a superhero — he gets replaced by one. Billy vanishes and Captain Marvel, the immortal champion, appears where Billy had been. Yes, I'm aware that in current DC continuity, Billy and Marvel are the same person. But that wasn't how it played when I was reading DC's Shazam! in the early '70s. In those stories, Billy and the Captain were clearly two discrete beings. (When Marvel Comics developed their own character named Captain Marvel during this same timeframe, the same paradigm existed — when Mar-Vell was in the "real" universe, his teenage counterpart Rick Jones was banished to the Negative Zone, and vice versa.)

What fun is that for a kid? Some chubby middle-aged guy in long underwear gets the superpowers and all the adventures, while you're off cooling your heels God only knows where? That's a nightmare, not a fantasy.

Captain Marvel Jr. was equally inexplicable. Physically handicapped newsboy Freddy Freeman (he was "crippled" back before we got all politically correct up in here) speaks the name "Captain Marvel," and he becomes a superhuman version of himself. Riddle me this, Shazam: Why on earth would Freddy ever change back into his crutch-dependent everyday self? And yet he did, at the end of every Captain Marvel Jr. story. Methinks poor Freddy might have been handicapped in more ways than one.

Mary Marvel got it right — she was a smart, resourceful teenager who could power up into a smart, resourceful young woman who was actually herself, not a completely different adult. Now that's how you roll, Mary. You go, girl!

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Maverick, meet Iceman

The incoming First Family have received their official Secret Service callsigns.

President-elect Barack Obama is known to the boys with the black suits, buttons, and bad attitudes as "Renegade." Hopefully, that's not an indication that he's a Lorenzo Lamas fan.

First Lady-elect Michelle is "Renaissance." Perhaps she enjoys anachronistic cosplay. (She'd be the first First Lady since Jackie Kennedy who could make a peasant blouse and petticoat look good.)

First Daughters-elect Malia and Sasha are "Radiance" and "Rosebud." One's a little bit Charlotte's Web; the other's a little bit Citizen Kane.

The outgoing President and First Lady depart as "Trailblazer" and "Tempo." The car names make sense, given Bush 43's petroleum industry ties and the sorry state into which American automotive corporations have plummeted during his administration. (Yes, I know that the latter is not his fault. I just enjoy kicking the guy when he's down.)

Not that it would ever be pertinent, but I've given a bit of thought to the callsign I'd want were I ever to be elected Leader of the Free World. Here are a few options I came up with:
  • Earthquake. It's where I live, and it's what I do.
  • Midnight. I'm never in bed before then.
  • Flapjacks. Have you ever seen my feet?
  • Gutshot. I'm crazy enough to draw to one when I have too few outs.
  • Snickerdoodle. Mmmm... snickerdoodles.
  • Prowler. Hobie Brown should be President, doggone it.
  • Brainiac. Unless Ken Jennings gets elected first.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The $9 million Danish

I wish I could steal the headline composed by Lance Bradley, writer for the poker magazine Bluff: "The Riches of Eastgate."

But I won't.

Congratulations to Peter Eastgate, who in the wee hours of this morning became the youngest-ever winner of the World Series of Poker's Main Event.

Eastgate dominated the so-called November Nine, routing the final table in convincing fashion. The 22-year-old from Odense, Denmark held off a worthy challenge from Russian pro Ivan Demidov to capture poker's highest prize, the gold World Champion bracelet and the $9 million cash that accompanies it.

You can catch the highlights of the final table, with scintillating commentary by Lon McEachern and Norman Chad, tonight on ESPN starting at 8 p.m. EST.

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Lincecum, by landslide

Four long decades of waiting have come to an end. A San Francisco Giant has won the Cy Young Award.

Tim Lincecum, whose 265 strikeouts led the National League this past season, becomes the first Giant tabbed as the league's best pitcher since Mike McCormick won the honor in 1967 — a time when many Americans were still watching television in black and white, and when only a handful of current major leaguers had been born.

Lincecum grabbed 23 first-place votes from the panel of 32 baseball writers. He placed second on seven ballots. Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the 2006 winner, finished second behind Lincecum in the voting. Johan Santana of the New York Mets, who won the American League Cy Young in 2004 and 2006 while pitching for the Minnesota Twins, was third.

There was some question about whether Lincecum would garner the necessary votes to take down the Cy Young, given the fact that Webb won 22 games (Lincecum won 18) and Santana finished the year blazing hot, with a 9-0 streak. Luckily, the baseball writers saw what every hitter in the National League experienced this season — when Lincecum was on his game, as he was most of the time, he was nigh onto unhittable.

"Tiny Tim" may be the most unlikely pitcher ever to win the Cy Young. In an era when it's rare to see a major league pitcher under six feet tall, Lincecum stands somewhere in the neighborhood of 5'10" (the Giants officially — and generously — list him at 5'11"). If he weighs the 160 pounds noted on his baseball card, it's only in full uniform, and with a handful of lead sinkers in his pocket. With his boyish face, Tim could easily pass for a teenager (he's 24). He throws with a peculiar delivery that reminds me of a fake snake springing out of a can of peanuts. And yet, he consistently cranks out fastballs in the mid-90s, where his combination of speed and motion baffle hitters at an incredible rate.

And to think, 2008 was his first full season in the Show.

It seems odd that a team that has boasted some pretty fair pitchers over the course of its West Coast tenure — including Hall of Famers Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry — should only have had two Cy Young winners. Perry did, in fact, win two Cy Young Awards — one in each league — but both came after he left San Francisco at the end of the 1971 season.

The Giants' best starting pitcher of the pre-Lincecum period, Jason Schmidt, came close to a Cy Young twice — he finished second to the Dodgers' Eric Gagne in 2003 (a year in which Gagne posted 55 saves, becoming one of only a few relief pitchers to taste Cy Young glory), and was fourth the following season.

Two of the Giants' most promising chances to post a Cy Young season both came in 1993, when John Burkett and Bill Swift each won more than 20 games. Ironically, their simultaneous accomplishments came in a year when, as good as both Giants were, Greg Maddux was even better. Swift finished second in the Cy Young vote, and Burkett fourth.

Here's hoping that Lincecum can stay healthy — and stay in San Francisco — for many more stellar seasons to come.

Way to go, Timmy!

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Heroes of the day: America's veterans

We are humbled by your sacrifice, veterans, and that of your fallen comrades.

May all your brothers and sisters who are manning foreign battlefields and bases return home safely, and soon.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Hey, bud... let's party

Transworld SURF, the unofficial "official" magazine of surfing culture, has compiled a list of the top 10 surfing colleges in America.

I was pleased — at least, as pleased as it's possible for me to be about anything to do with surfing — that my old school, Pepperdine University, ranks as Number Four on the list. That seems rather low for an institution of which the article states, "If there were a West Coast Ivy League, Pepperdine would be in it." But who am I to complain?

Although I spent a sizable chunk of my youth living within walking distance of beaches in both Hawaii and Greece, and although I matriculated for two years at the fourth-best surfing college in the United States, I must confess that I have never surfed. I attribute my lack of surf experience to three essential factors: (1) poor balance; (2) lackluster swimming skills; and (3) extreme cowardice.

The fact that my rotund frame clad in a wetsuit would resemble a baby orca escaped from Sea World doesn't bode well for any future surfing exploits.

As a collateral benefit of my Pepperdine education, however, I speak pitch-perfect SoCal surfer dialect. If you're a creative director looking to voice-cast a Jeff Spicoli sound-alike, I'm your huckleberry.

I mean: I'm your huckleberry, dude.

In addition, I possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Annette Funicello Beach Party films. I also know all of the lyrics to a plethora of Beach Boys hits, including "Surfin' Safari," "I Get Around," "God Only Knows," and "The Sloop John B."

Thus, although I am not a surfer, I am capable of being at least somewhat surferish.

As a side note, I see from the Transworld SURF piece that Pepperdine's annual tuition, plus room and board, is now in excess of $47K. I'm thankful that my junior college sophomore daughter, who's currently scouting four-year universities for next academic year, doesn't surf either.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

If it's November, these must be the Nine

After a four-month break, the Main Event of the 2008 World Series of Poker is once again under way, its nine-man final table having reconvened earlier today at the Rio in Las Vegas.

Personally, I think the new format for the Main Event — which played from 6,844 entrants down to nine back in July, before taking a planned hiatus — is ludicrous. With everything that's happened in the sports world (the Summer Olympics, the World Series) as well as the real world (the plummeting economy, the Presidential election) during the past four months, you'd have to be a hardcore poker fanatic to even remember that the tournament was resuming today, much less still be interested.

Which tells you something about me, I guess.

As I compose this post, the November Nine have already been whittled down to the Magnificent Seven: Craig Marquis, a 23-year-old from the Dallas area, busted out in ninth place (Craig was eighth as play resumed), and Kelly Kim, a poker pro from southern California, departed in eighth place (Kelly had been the final table's short stack).

The remaining players, as they rank at this moment, are:
  • Ivan Demidov, a 27-year-old poker pro from Moscow (Russia, not Idaho), who last month finished third in the WSOP Europe Main Event in London.

  • Ylon Schwartz, a 38-year-old former chess prodigy from New York City.

  • Peter Eastgate, a 22-year-old pro from Denmark.

  • Scott Montgomery, a 27-year-old pro from Ontario, Canada.

  • Dennis Phillips, a 53-year-old trucking company executive from St. Louis. Dennis was the chip leader at the start of today's play.

  • Darus Suharto, a 39-year-old Indonesian-born Canadian accountant.

  • David "Chino" Rheem, a 28-year-old pro from Los Angeles, and probably the best known of the November Nine prior to July.
Tournament officials expect to have a winner sometime tomorrow night, or early Tuesday morning at the latest. A two-hour condensation of the final table play will air Tuesday night (and endlessly thereafter, if tradition holds) on ESPN.

Let's shuffle up and deal!

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Friday, November 07, 2008


Back in the 1980s, when the San Francisco 49ers were the baddest football team on the planet, the team's offense was led by a former third-round draft pick from Notre Dame named Joe Montana.

Every team in the NFL passed on Montana at least once — some, two or three times — because he didn't look like much. He was short (the 49ers' roster always listed him as six feet even, but I can call dozens of eyewitnesses to the stand who've seen Montana up close and personal, and who would testify that he's a couple of inches shy of that mark), boyish-looking, scrawny as a meth addict (spare me the e-mails, people; that's a simile, not an accusation), and didn't possess the kind of catapult arm that football scouts salivate over.

In 1979 the 49ers, a team that had just finished a 2-14 season and was about to start another, selected Montana. The rest, if you know your football, is the stuff of legend.

What made the unlikely-appearing Montana so awesome?

The late Bill Walsh, who coached those Niners of the '80s to multiple Super Bowl victories, might use the word "intangibles."

Today's Comic Art Friday featured artwork, drawn by the talented Gene Gonzales, has absolutely nothing to do with football. It is, however, all about intangibles.

The smiling young superheroine at upper left bears the code name Shadowcat, though she is more familiarly known to comics aficionados by her given name, Katherine "Kitty" Pryde. Her ponytailed companion at bottom right is Tinya Wazzo, whose comrades in the Legion of Super-Heroes call her Phantom Girl. Given that this is another of my Common Elements commissions, I'll wager that you've already figured out the commonality between Kitty and Tinya — they share the power of intangibility.

If you've seen any of the X-Men movie trilogy, you know Kitty as "the girl who can walk through walls" who appears in each of the three films. She's played by a different actress each time — Sumela Kay in X-Men; Katie Stuart in X2; and 2008 Academy Award nominee Ellen Page (Juno) in X-Men: The Last Stand. Although she's a perpetual adolescent in both comics and films (she actually begins the movie franchise as a preteen), Kitty has been a key component of Marvel's X-Men books for nearly three decades, having debuted in Uncanny X-Men #129 in 1980.

Phantom Girl's history extends back even farther. Although she wasn't one of the three charter members of the Legion (for the record: Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and Lightning Lad), Tinya joined the far-future super-teen supergroup early on. She made her premiere appearance in Action Comics #276 (May 1961), soon becoming the Legion's fifth inductee — Triplicate Girl managed to sneak in just ahead of her. Like most of her fellow Legionnaires, Phantom Girl changed her costume on several occasions during her long career. The one shown here — my favorite of Tinya's styles — originated during artist Dave Cockrum's sartorial makeover of the entire team in the early '70s.

At the end of a week when we all watched the intangible become concrete, this joyful match-up of two ephemeral yet genuine heroines seemed like the perfect coda.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Hoppin' John

I can't allow the moment to pass without saying this:

If John McCain had given on the campaign stump more speeches of the kind that he gave last evening in conceding defeat, he might well have won.

For what it's worth, I don't think McCain is a bad guy. I think he got a ton of bad advice from the extreme wingnuts in his party, and decided to take it.

Which tells us both why he didn't get elected, and why it's probably a very good thing that he didn't.

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Dawn of a new day

Did Obama still win?

Yes, it appears that he did.

There may be a handful of folks surprised that the sun rose this morning, on the day after an African American man was elected the 44th President of the United States. But it did. And, I suspect, that handful is smaller than it ever would have been before today.

What still stuns me most is not so much the fact of Obama's victory — although, to be honest, I'm considerably stunned by that alone — but the nature of that victory. Just consider the popular vote: Obama's 52.4% (which may change by a tenth of a point either way, once all of the absentee and provisional ballots are tallied) is the highest mark for any President-elect in 20 years. By way of comparison, Ronald Reagan racked up only 50.7% in 1980, running against a hugely unpopular Jimmy Carter.

Obama won Florida. He won Virginia. He won Indiana, for crying out loud — I would not have believed that possible, based upon my brief personal experiences in that state. North Carolina's 15 electoral votes may yet fall into Obama's column — we're talking about the state that kept the virulently racist Jesse Helms gainfully employed for decades. Obama got 56% of the vote in New Mexico, and 54% in Iowa. He garnered 55% in Nevada, which, despite its proximity to California and its legendary embrace of casino gambling and legalized prostitution (only in counties with populations under 50,000, though — not in cities like Las Vegas or Reno), is a fairly conservative place with a sizable Mormon citizenry.

The overall popular vote favored Obama by roughly six percentage points, which is fairly close to the final pre-election aggregate of the major polls. The vaunted Bradley Effect didn't manifest itself to any significant degree — which, again, surprises me, but not as much as it might have a decade ago.

As ludicrous as it sounds, I think that popular culture helped pave the way for a President who just happens to be African American. Millions of people saw Morgan Freeman as President Tom Beck in the movie Deep Impact; who's not cool with Morgan Freeman? (Well, maybe his soon-to-be-ex-wife, but that's another issue.) Millions more watched Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer on the first three seasons of 24; Haysbert was so authoritative and reassuring that he's now the "you're in good hands with Allstate" guy. D.B. Woodside then followed Haysbert to the 24 White House as President Wayne Palmer, David's brother and indirect successor. (I was going to mention Chris Rock as President Mays Gilliam in Head of State... but that's probably not a good example.) Seeing these talented African American actors playing strong, capable, decisive Presidents may — even at a subconscious level — have planted the notion in people's minds that, yeah, okay, a black guy could be President. You've gotta name it before you can claim it, as the saying goes.

Certainly, for President-to-be Obama, the tough journey is only beginning. Getting elected is one thing; governing effectively enough to get re-elected is entirely another, as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush could relate. Everything we've seen of Obama gives me confidence that he's equal to the challenge. How great a President he will be, only time will tell. But he will be President, which in itself is something special.

The additional symbolism of Obama as our 44th President resonates with me, too. One of my favorite baseball players of all time is Willie "Stretch" McCovey, the long-time San Francisco Giant whose number 44 hangs in retired glory at AT&T Park. McCovey was a smooth, cool, easygoing man whose quiet authority made him a respected team leader, and ultimately, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. His 1959 selection as National League Rookie of the Year, 1969 National League Most Valuable Player Award, six All-Star appearances, and 521 home runs — including a National League record 18 grand slams — contributed also. The Giants' annual "most inspirational player" honor, the Willie Mac Award, bears McCovey's name.

Although he won't take office for another 76 days, Obama 44 is already in the running for that "most inspirational" tag.

Now, he'll have to earn it.

In local election news, I was glad to see that my neighbors passed Measure Q, which provides funding (via a quarter-cent sales tax increase) for the SMART passenger-rail system. SMART will run from Cloverdale, Sonoma County's northernmost outpost, to Larkspur in Marin County, where the Golden Gate Ferry terminal is located, with 14 stops in between. SMART has been on the ballot at least twice before, and has lost narrowly each time, mostly due to opposition from Marin County interests. (In 2006, SMART received 65.3% of the combined Sonoma-Marin vote, just short of the two-thirds majority required for a sales tax hike.)

In this era of high energy costs, and given the perennially impacted commute corridor on U.S. 101, SMART makes excellent sense. The railway easement, a now-dormant line formerly operated by Union Pacific, already exists. Now that funding is approved, SMART should be up and running by 2013.

On a related note, it looks as though California voters also approved Proposition 1A, a bond measure that will help fund a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with eventual extensions to San Diego in the south and Sacramento in the north. Again, this transportation solution is an idea whose time has long since come, and I hope that the measure is officially passed once all of the votes are counted.

All right, election over. Everybody back to work.

One more quick note: This morning on KCBS News Radio, I heard a psychologist talking about the effects of Post-Event Energy Deficiency, a condition many folks may be suffering in the aftermath of an intense and attention-commanding election. That's as may be... but that condition would benefit from a better acronym.

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The Big O


349 electoral votes. That's with North Carolina (leaning blue) and Missouri (leaning red) still to be officially called at 2:45 a.m. PST.

I'm almost afraid to go to bed, for fear that by morning, the wingnuts will have engineered a way to snake the election, as they did in 2000.

But in the interest of good faith, I'll give it a shot.

Congratulations, Mr. President-Elect.

You too, Mr. Vice President-Elect. (Can I still call you Joe?)

America... you done good.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008


According to the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters, our vote-by-mail ballots have been received.

This means that, whatever else happens, Barack Obama got at least three votes.

It's hard for me to express how elated I am that, in my daughter's first Presidential election, she has a choice at the top of the ticket that resonates with her, and for whom she was excited to cast her first vote for President. Although I know it won't happen every time, it's important to me that her first experience in helping to choose the leader of the free world be inspiring and positive, rather than the usual ennui-inducing coin flip between two tapioca-bland evils.

I'm glad that for once, we have a choice that actually matters. And yes, I'm a wee bit tickled that it's a choice that is not only right for the time, place, and office, but also reflects the nature of my family, my community, and the man I see in the mirror every morning. In my lifetime, I've never been offered a choice like that before. I'm pleased that my daughter won't have to live to be my age before she is offered such a choice.

I wrote this in July 2004, after Barack Obama's keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention:
The phrase that leapt out of Obama's speech for me was "the audacity of hope." I don't tend to be hopeful about humankind in general because we are what we are and will never change, but at the individual level we must either hope or die. "Hope does not disappoint us," as the apostle wrote, because it impels us onward and gives us reason to face each new day. Sometimes we don't get all that we hope for, but if we never hope, we will never strive, and therefore will never get anything. And yes, it's an audacious concept -- as audacious as the day two bicycle mechanics launched their ungainly Flyer at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and said, "Hope this works." Maybe the Wrights' machine would have crashed and burned. But they'd have never known had they not hoped enough to try.
Today, we can make a choice as a nation that says something good about us as Americans. We need to hear that. The world needs to hear that. God knows we've said and done enough in recent years to make us look vain and mean-spirited and vicious and stupid. It's about time we stood up once again and said, "This is who we really are. We are honorable and decent and just. We have intelligence and compassion and strength. We are a people of hope."

If you went to the polls today and voiced your choice, good on you. If you haven't yet voted, but are going to vote before your precinct closes, good on you. If you, as did our family, voted early by whatever process your state offers, good on you. I hope you made, or will make, the right choices.

That means I hope that you made your choices — not just at the top of the ballot, but all the way through — in light of the noble hope that makes this country such a wonderful place to inhabit. We may not always be a people who do the right thing. But we should always be a people who try.

By this time tomorrow, we will all know whether our efforts — and our hope — were enough.

I'm SwanShadow, and I approve this message.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

I vote for free coffee!

In our litigious world, no honorably intentioned deed goes unpunished.

Just ask the people at Starbucks.

Last week, Starbucks announced a promotion that would provide a free cup of coffee on Election Day to every customer who told the barista that he or she had voted. The company pitched the deal aggressively via viral marketing, as well as through a spot that aired on NBC's Saturday Night Live.

Then came the call from the government.

Federal law forbids offering people any form of incentive to vote. Apparently, "incentive" can be broadly construed to include a tall cup of Pike Place Roast.

Rather than incur the wrath of The Powers That Be, Starbucks has decided to make the offer of free coffee open to everyone, including nonvoters.

The good news is that now all Americans — including convicted felons on parole, and anyone too lazy, conflicted, or forgetful to have registered to vote — will be able to drop by the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady tomorrow and slug down a tasty snootful of gratis Joe.

Make mine Biden.

Not the plumber.

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