Saturday, January 31, 2009

Is that a gorilla suit, or are you just hairy to see me?

As the first month of another year draws to a close, we're doing what we always do here at SSTOL on this noteworthy occasion...

We're suiting up, baby.

Instituted by the late, great Don Martin, MAD Magazine's MADdest Artist, National Gorilla Suit Day reminds us each January 31 not to take life so darned seriously.

I'm cuing up Trading Places even as I type.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

To the moon, Alice!

Is it Comic Art Friday already? Holy cats, where did the week go?

For that matter, where did January go?

Michael Dooney
has been one of my favorite artists to commission over the past several years. If Mike isn't the penciler whose work is most abundantly represented in my collection, he's got to be in the top three.

I don't know why it took so long for me to commission Mike for one of my trademark Bombshells! pinups, especially given that he's one of the few present-day comic artists who has created real, honest-to-Vargas nose art. Mike's exquisitely crafted vintage-style emblems adorn the aircraft of the 104th Fighter Wing, a.k.a. "The Barnestormers," based in Mike's home town of Westfield, Massachusetts.

So it shouldn't surprise me that when asked to dream up a Bombshell! featuring Moon Girl, one of my favorite forgotten heroines of comics' Golden Age, Mike flat-out rocked it.

Moon Girl holds a unique distinction as the star of the only superhero comic published by EC Comics, a firm infinitely more notorious for its seminal horror, crime, and sci-fi books (plus a little novelty called MAD) than for fantasy action-adventure.

Moon Girl's short-lived series is also unique in comics history for its near-constant title changes. The masthead morphed from Moon Girl and the Prince to just plain Moon Girl (the Prince having been kicked to the curb after a single appearance) to the sensationalistic Moon Girl Fights Crime and finally to A Moon, A Girl... Romance (at which point Moon Girl herself was dumped in favor of soap-operatic melodrama) in the span of just nine issues.

Like most artists, Michael Dooney relishes the opportunity to draw characters beyond the familiar favorites he's most often called upon to depict. When I tossed Moon Girl his way, Mike was ecstatic — not only had he never drawn the mysterious lunar lass (she never did have an identity other than Moon Girl) before, he'd never heard of her until I commissioned this drawing.

Within mere hours of receiving the assignment, Mike had dashed off a couple of rough sketches to show me what he had in mind.

From these spartan beginnings evolved the magnificently realized artwork seen above.

Although Dooney's creation marks Moon Girl's Bombshells! debut, it's her second appearance in my theme galleries. The sublimely talented James E. Lyle teamed the Selenian siren with Marvel's Moon Knight in this Common Elements tableau.

If you like today's feature debut — and how could you not? — you're in luck. I'll have another Dooney Bombshell! to show you next week.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What's Up With That? #70: Doctor Wu and the Royal Scam

Until I was in my early 40s, I never took maintenance medication of any kind.

Now, I swallow enough junk every day to cover my pharmacist's greens fees.

I think it's a racket.

I take two different medications to control my blood glucose level — one every morning, the other twice every day with meals.

Here's the weird thing about that. Every time I have blood work done, my A1c — I forget what the abbreviation stands for, but it's a measure of long-term glucose levels — is well into the normal range.

My nurse practitioner says that means the medication is doing its job.

But how does she know that it doesn't mean that I don't actually have a blood glucose problem, and therefore don't need the medication?

I smell a scam.

I now take three different medications to regulate my blood pressure. My doctor added another one after my most recent checkup.

My wife has metastatic breast cancer. My only child is leaving for university this fall. I'm trying to start a new career direction at age 47. I'm a self-employed small businessperson in a lousy economy.

Maybe there's a reason why I have high blood pressure.

Another scam.

In addition to the prescription drugs, I take a multivitamin, an aspirin, and — this was another recommendation from the last exam — a fish oil capsule. That last is supposed to keep my Omega-3 up.

I didn't even know I had an Omega-3. I don't wear a watch.

Scam number three.

And we wonder why health care is so doggoned expensive.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Swan Tunes In: Trust Me

Following on the award-winning critical success of AMC's Mad Men, TNT is serving up its own spin on the daily lives of advertising executives in its new series, Trust Me. I checked out the premiere episode the other night, and I have to say that I was surprised and impressed.

Having worked as a freelance advertising copywriter for the past six-plus years, I was curious to see whether Trust Me captured what I believe to be the essential characteristic of the industry: That all advertising people are insane.

And yes, they've got that pretty well nailed down.

In its lead roles, Trust Me casts a pair of actors whose work doesn't usually interest me: Eric McCormack (formerly the gay half of Will and Grace) and Tom Cavanagh (late of Ed, which enjoyed a moderately successful run, and Love Monkey, which didn't). They're a Felix-and-Oscar team of ad creatives: McCormack's Mason McGuire is the graphic artist and the steady, level-headed one; Cavanagh's Conner (who doesn't appear to have another name — the sign on his office door reads simply "Conner") is the copywriter and the wacky, unpredictable one.

When their creative director dies suddenly, Mason is promoted to his position, threatening the delicate balance of his working partnership with Conner. The duo also encounter conflict from Sarah, a newly hired superstar copywriter brought in to shake up the firm — she's played by Monica Potter, who looks as though she'll be even more annoying here than she was on Boston Legal. (In this role, Potter's irritating quality is character-appropriate. When Sarah attempts to persuade her former boss at her previous agency to take her back, he tells her, "I think I'm going to hire someone I don't hate.")

Although I've never worked on staff at a major ad agency, Trust Me accurately reflects the dynamics of most of the agencies I've come to know. Again, that basically means that all ad creatives are nuts. Trust Me plays that angle more directly for humor than does Mad Men, which leans to the dramatic. Specifically, much of the comedy derives from Conner's foibles — he's an only-slightly more mature version of the Tom Hanks character in Big, an overgrown adolescent whose childish behavior is offset by his creative brilliance.

As noted above, I'm not a fan of either Cavanagh or McCormack, but they're well-cast — and ideally matched — here. Their supporting cast, in addition to Potter, includes Griffin Dunne, who improves anything in which he appears, just by showing up. The show's debut script displayed a deft hand, employing that over-the-top comic reality that worked so well in the early seasons of Ally McBeal. (This isn't a David E. Kelley production, but it has some of the flavor.) If the writers can sustain the quality, Trust Me could join Mad Men as a perennial award contender.

Uncle Swan gives Trust Me four tailfeathers out of five. I recommend giving it a look-see.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Gung hay fat (as an Ox) choy!

Welcome to the Year of the Ox, as our Chinese friends put it.

This is supposed to be a good year for me, given that I was born during a previous Ox cycle. (Not that I lend any credence to that sort of thing, mind you. These days, however, I'll accept all of the positive juju I can get.)

As an Ox, I'm supposed to be patient, dependable, methodical, and hardworking. Oxen are also said to be beautiful of face, and fond of children.

That ought to tell you how bogus this astrology stuff is.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Did you ever know that you're my Hero?

The artwork featured in today's Comic Art Friday is, at 2.5 by 3.5 inches, far and away the smallest piece in my collection. It's special, however, for reasons that go beyond its size... or even its content.

It's a drawing of Medusa, the prehensile-haired member of that mysterious family of superpowered beings known as the Inhumans. Medusa has also, at various times in her career, fought alongside the Fantastic Four, even joining as a temporary member when Susan Richards, the Invisible Woman, took a leave of absence.

Medusa appears here courtesy of industry veteran Bob Wiacek, who has done the majority of his considerable comics work as an inker. Bob's inks have graced dozens of titles since the mid-1970s, most recently DC's The Brave and the Bold over the pencils of the legendary George Pérez.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. What's so special about a head sketch of Medusa by Bob Wiacek?

The logo at bottom right answers this question.

I received this sketch card when I became a member of The Hero Initiative, to which I'll refer henceforth as Hero, for the sake of brevity. Hero is a federally chartered 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation established by several comics publishers to aid comic book creators who find themselves in financial hardship. Hero provides veteran comics writers and artists — who generally worked freelance for microscopic wages during much of the industry's history — with funds for emergency medical care and basic necessities to get them through difficult times.

Hero began in 2001 as ACTOR (A Commitment to Our Roots). A couple of years ago, the organization adopted its current name, to avoid confusion with charities benefiting members of the acting profession. Hero's leadership includes a panel of prominent industry insiders, including such noted artists and writers as Dick Giordano, Roy Thomas, Dennis O'Neil, John Romita Sr., and the aforementioned George Pérez.

As part of its fundraising efforts, Hero recently began offering annual memberships. One randomly selected sketch card, each created especially for Hero by an assortment of talented artists, is included in the membership packet. My Bob Wiacek Medusa card arrived in the mail just a few days after I signed up.

In a magnificent gesture of partnership, Comic Art Fans — the site where I maintain my online art gallery — is offering its subscribers a $10 discount on their annual fee if they purchase a Hero membership. You'll notice a Hero Initiative logo marking the galleries of those Comic Art Fans denizens who also are Hero members. Including yours truly.

Like many longtime comics fans, I harbor a deep appreciation for the gifted folks whose creative talents have been an essential element of my life for more than 40 years. I've supported Hero for the past few years by dropping a few dollars in the collection can at the Hero Initiative booth at WonderCon every February. I'm pleased and honored to have yet another way to give something back to the artists and writers who've provided me with so much entertainment.

I know times are tough for everyone at the moment. They're especially tough for some of the older comics creators whose careers provided little opportunity for significant savings, or such essentials as health insurance. If you're a fan of comics, and you can spare as little as $29, you too can become a member of Hero, and do your part to help. If you can't afford a membership, you can donate any amount that fits your wallet at the Hero Initiative site.

Like the Hero tagline says, everyone deserves a Golden Age.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jonesing for Obama

One further thought...

As I'm watching and reading the inauguration coverage, political bloggers and reporters keep referring to Obama as a "Baby Boomer." Although that's technically correct — the traditional cutoff for the post-World War II Baby Boom is 1964— as Obama's immediate peer (we both were born in 1961; he's a few months older than I), I don't think it's sociologically accurate.

Those of us born in the late 1950s and early 1960s better fit the description of "Generation Jones," as defined by pop culture savant Jonathan Pontell. We have far more in common with today's young adults, a.k.a. Generation X, than we do with the more conservative Boomers who arrived in the decade before us.

Like our younger colleagues, we Jonesers tend to be more liberal politically, more tolerant socially, and more savvy technologically than our Boomer elders. (Obama's infamous Blackberry is an excellent illustration of this latter point.)

We mark a striking transition between the children of WWII veterans — the generation that voted Ronald Reagan and both Bushes into office (as well as Bill Clinton, who ran as a conservative Democrat) — and the enthusiastic youth who helped sweep our new President into the White House.

It's an important distinction to make, I think.

Our generation elected Barack Obama. The Baby Boomers would have elected John McCain.

So let's call Obama, not the last President of the Baby Boom generation, but the first President born of Generation Jones.

Now, my fellow Jonesers, let's go change the world.

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Marshaling my thoughts in the wake of President Obama's inauguration...
  • Ironic, in a way, that I was in my minivan returning home from taking my daughter to class at the local junior college (her car is still in the shop after she was rear-ended two weeks ago) as Obama took the oath of office. History is made... but everyday life goes on.

  • Memo to Chief Justice John Roberts: For pity's sake, man, memorize the Presidential oath. And if you can't memorize it, write it down.

  • As stately and majestic a President as Obama makes, Michelle is every inch as stately and majestic a First Lady. They both chose well.

  • Glad as I am to see Bush 43 leave office, it's a touching moment watching him and the former First Lady board that Marine helicopter for the final time. Bush was among our worst Presidents ever, but he was still our President.

  • I'd describe Obama's speech as soberingly electric. He clearly understands the gravity of his new office.

  • Obama also made clear the distinction between his incoming administration and that of his predecessor: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Cut to Bush squirming in his seat.

  • I love the fact that Obama didn't run from anything in his speech: not the challenges ahead, not the mistakes of the past, not the darkness of racism, not even his own middle name — which he used in taking the oath.

  • They should commission Maya Angelou to write the inaugural poem every four years. No disrespect to the writer who composed today's poem, but... she's no Maya Angelou.

  • I was surprised that Dianne Feinstein blew off the Constitutional deadline for the new President's swearing-in, in favor of Yo-Yo Ma and Yitzhak Perlman playing John Williams. But when in doubt, go to the arts.

  • How fitting that Dick Cheney gets trundled out of office in a wheelchair, given everything he's done to cripple the country while he's been Vice President.

  • I'm reminded of that old Peugeot commercial with tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis showing off his new car to his unimpressed father. "Is a nice Peugeot, Vitas," said the elder Gerulaitis after his son finished extolling the virtues of his ride. "Now when you are getting a haircut?" In that same spirit: It's a nice inauguration, Mr. President. Now it's time to get a haircut, metaphorically speaking.

  • Yet, at the same time... what a spectacular, enthralling, glorious moment for our nation, and indeed, for our planet. America is indeed ready to lead once more.

  • You go, 44.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Dr. King on the power of love

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, August 16, 1967:
It is perfectly clear that a violent revolution on the part of American blacks would find no sympathy and support from the white population and very little from the majority of the Negroes themselves. This is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom. This is a time for action. What is needed is a strategy for change, a tactical program that will bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible. So far, this has only been offered by the nonviolent movement. Without recognizing this we will end up with solutions that don't solve, answers that don't answer and explanations that don't explain.

And so I say to you today that I still stand by nonviolence. And I am still convinced that it is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for justice in this country. And the other thing is that I am concerned about a better world. I'm concerned about justice. I'm concerned about brotherhood. I'm concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about these, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer but you can't murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can't establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can't murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind's problems. And I'm going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn't popular to talk about it in some circles today. I'm not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love, I'm talking about a strong, demanding love.

And I have seen too much hate. I've seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I've seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear.

I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.
Thanks for the reminder, Dr. King. I wish only that you could be there in Washington tomorrow, to see in shining measure what you and so many others made possible.

Speaking of love...

Happy 24th anniversary, KJ!

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Friday, January 16, 2009

She ran calling Wildfire

I enjoy many things about my Bombshells! commissions, not the least of which is the kick that the artists seem to get from drawing bomber nose art homages featuring Golden Age superheroines. At the top of the list for me, though, is the chance to celebrate these classic, often forgotten characters from comics' formative years.

Take, for example, Wildfire, drawn here in all her Bombshellosity (it's a word; look it up) by Scott Rosema (Space Ghost; Solar, Man of the Atom). You can click the image to get a better view.

Something of a female Human Torch, Wildfire made her first appearance in 1941, in Quality Comics' Smash Comics #25. She was created by writer Robert Turner and artist Jim Mooney, the latter of whom reportedly modeled her appearance after his first wife. Wildfire enjoyed a twelve-issue run in Smash before fading from the scene.

Many of Quality Comics' superheroes have resurfaced in recent decades in the pages of various DC Comics titles, inasmuch as DC purchased the publishing rights to Quality's oeuvre when Quality closed up shop in the 1950s. At least one member of the old Quality gang — namely, Plastic Man — evolved into a mid-level star at DC. The others, for the most part, have been used to crew DC's retro-themed super-teams, the Freedom Fighters and All-Star Squadron.

Except for Wildfire.

You see, at the time when writer Roy Thomas first resurrected the Quality heroes in the 1970s, DC already had a character called Wildfire — a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes whose original code name was ERG-1. So instead, Thomas created a female version of the Golden Age hero Firebrand (who had little in common with Wildfire, beyond their somewhat similar noms de guerre) and gave her Wildfire's powers. So far as I'm aware, the first Wildfire remains banished to comics oblivion.

Until today, that is.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Does this casket come with soft Corinthian leather?

Wow, bad day for aged celebrities.

No sooner did I complete my obit of Patrick McGoohan than word arrives of the passing of Ricardo Montalbán, who, depending on your viewing preferences, was either Khan Noonien Singh of the classic Star Trek episode "Space Seed" and its sequel motion picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, or the dapper Mr. Roarke, the ice-cream-suited master manipulator of Fantasy Island.

We children of the '70s, of course, also recall Montalbán as the suave pitchman for the Chrysler Cordoba, famously upholstered in "soft Corinthian leather." The joke was that "Corinthian leather" was little more than some copywriter's snazzy buzzword for a product manufactured in Newark, New Jersey.

I often thought that Mr. Roarke had the most depressing job in the world. He spent all of his time and resources creating fantasies for other people — fantasies which never seemed to work out all that well for the recipients. Then, he'd cluck his tongue at the hard lessons learned when people got what they thought they wanted. Roarke was like a sadistic Santa Claus, albeit with bespoke tailoring and better weather.

To top it off, Mr. Roarke never seemed to get any of his own fantasies fulfilled. Unless his fantasies involved living on a tropical island with a lisping French dwarf. In which case, I guess he did.

My favorite episode of Fantasy Island was the one in which Mr. Roarke faced off with the devil (who, oddly enough, did not resemble Al Pacino) and emerged victorious. That storyline opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for Roarke, who prior to this had just seemed like a wealthier, more inventive Walt Disney. Was he really an angel? A sorcerer? A Highlander? (There can only be one, so probably not.)

Then again, the devil did tell Roarke at the end of the episode that he'd be back to fight again another day.

Perhaps that day was today.

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Be seeing you, Number Six

Don't tell Number Two, but Number Six has escaped.


Patrick McGoohan, a hero to a generation of genre TV cultists as the star of the classic espionage series Danger Man (retitled Secret Agent for American broadcast on CBS) and its even more famous "sequel" The Prisoner, has died at the age of 80.

For those of you who missed the 1960s, The Prisoner starred McGoohan (who cocreated the show with producer George Markstein) as a spy who, after submitting his resignation, is kidnapped and transported to an isolated seaside community known only as The Village. The protagonist, whose real name is never divulged, is referred to as Number Six. (Most fans suppose Number Six to be John Drake, the hero of Danger Man, even though McGoohan consistently denied this — most likely because someone else owned the rights to the earlier character.) Indeed, all residents of The Village are known only by numeric designations, including the sinister head honcho, Number Two (played by a different actor in almost every episode).

The 17-episode series revolves around Number Six's ongoing efforts to either escape — efforts often thwarted by an enormous, seemingly sentient balloon called Rover — or subvert Number Two's authority and control of The Village, or both. Number Two, in turn, engages in a constant stream of cat-and-mouse mind games, trying to learn why Number Six resigned his post (and, by implication, for whom Six might have been working).

In a memorable two-part finale, Number Six finally manages to break free of The Village's confines. Or does he?

I'm a member of that hardcore band of pop culture geeks who maintain that The Prisoner is one of the greatest series ever created for television. It's smartly written, thought-provoking, and can be interpreted in a variety of ways, depending upon one's political perspective and psychosocial worldview. Its 17 episodes span a broad range of genres — mystery, action-suspense, comic satire, even Western (the episode "Living in Harmony").

Thanks in large part to McGoohan's rigid control, the show maintained a high quality level, even though it ran longer than McGoohan originally proposed. (CBS insisted on 17 episodes, to ensure an afterlife in syndication — McGoohan conceived the show as a seven-episode cycle.) The Prisoner frequently explored themes that were considered controversial for the time: conspiracy theories, government mind control, propaganda, psychedelic drugs, anti-authority rebellion, and anti-war sentiment.

When I was studying broadcast communications at San Francisco State University, I took a course in semiotics — the study of symbols and signs as facets of the communication process — taught by one of the world's leading experts in the field, Dr. Arthur Asa Berger. Episodes of The Prisoner were among Dr. Berger's favorite teaching tools.

Ironically, Patrick McGoohan's passing comes shortly before the debut of a modernized retelling of The Prisoner, which airs later this year on American Movie Classics. The new Prisoner stars Jim Caviezel as Number Six, and Ian McKellen as his adversary, Number Two.

McGoohan continued to be much sought after as a character actor for decades following The Prisoner. He gained critical acclaim as the villainous King Edward, a.k.a. Longshanks, in Mel Gibson's Braveheart, and as the father of Billy Zane's jungle superhero in The Phantom. My favorites among his post-Prisoner roles were his frequent turns as perpetrator on Columbo (McGoohan won two Emmy Awards for his Columbo appearances, several of which he also directed), and his starring turn in the short-lived 1970s medical series Rafferty, which foreshadowed House by about 25 years.

Despite his impressive body of work, McGoohan will always be Number Six in my imagination.

"I am not a number — I am a free man!"

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Monday, January 12, 2009

One hot dog, with a side of Rice

As we predicted nearly a month and a half ago in this space, all-time steals leader Rickey Henderson was a first-ballot electee to the National Baseball Hall of Fame today.

Given Rickey's noted propensity for non sequitur interview commentary during his career, this should be an induction speech worth hearing.

Jim Rice finally made the Hall also, in his 15th and final year of ballot eligibility. I believe that's the correct call, and long overdue. Rice was the best all-around offensive player in the American League during his peak years. The fact that he was, in the estimation of some baseball writers who covered the Red Sox during Rice's tenure, an insufferable jerk, should not have kept Big Jim out of Cooperstown for as long as it did.

After all, the player who came the closest to being a unanimous selection for HOF glory, one Tyrus R. Cobb, was practically the definition of an insufferable jerk. If Cobb's well-documented jerkiness didn't disqualify him, Rice's shouldn't either.

I'm sorry that Andre Dawson — an even greater player than Rice, and possibly more likable — missed election again. Given his upward trend in the voting, however, I'm convinced that "The Hawk" will get in eventually. I say that even though this year, with only Henderson as a runaway first-ballot favorite, would have been an ideal time for the voters to show Dawson some love.

Every year, a handful of "what the heck?" votes turn up in the Hall of Fame tally. To the BBWAA's credit, there were remarkably few of these (even if I disagree, I understand the logic of the seven electors who cast a vote for Matt Williams, to cite one example) this year. Still, I'd like to know who were the two nutjobs who voted for Jay Bell.

Did Jay Bell's mom and dad get sent Hall of Fame ballots by mistake?

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Friday, January 09, 2009

The Bair Witch project

Every now and again, I'm approached by another comic art collector who wants to trade for an artwork that I own. I decline most of these offers for two reasons.

First, I treasure the art in my collection — after all, that's why I've collected it — and am not especially interested in parting with most of it.

Second, most of the trades I'm offered amount to what I like to call "sports talk trades" — that is, trades like those often proposed by callers to sports talk radio: "I think the Giants should trade two broken-down minor leaguers and a fungo bat to the Yankees for Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter."

This is the story of a good trade.

Not long ago, I received an e-mail from a fellow collector whom I'm call Robert. (Mostly because that's his name.) Robert had been browsing my online gallery, checking out a handful of pieces I had listed for sale. Robert also attached a scan of the piece you see above, a striking drawing of one of my favorite heroines — Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch — drawn in ink by the talented Michael Bair.

Robert asked whether I might be interested in acquiring his Bair Witch. Being, as are many of us these days, short on funds, I asked Robert whether he might entertain a trade. He was amenable, so I gave him a list of "untouchable" items in my gallery and asked him to select fair value from the rest. After a series of cordial exchanges about various combinations of artworks, I accepted Robert's final offer, and we made our deal.

We each shipped our portion of the bargain the following day. Both packages arrived safely ("there's no reason to be nervous; you can trust the Postal Service"), and we were each pleased with the art we received. Robert got three small pieces by a favorite artist who is well represented in my collection, plus another, larger item by an up-and-coming artist.

I got the Bair Witch.

Why was this a good trade? For several reasons:
  1. Both parties understood the value of the items involved. I've bought a couple of pieces of Michael Bair's work, and have bid unsuccessfully on several others, so I know what price his work commands on the open market. I appreciated the fact that I was going to have to put together a package of items to equal the value of Robert's Scarlet Witch. At the same time, all of Robert's proposals met the standard of fair value — he didn't attempt to hold me up just because I expressed interest.

  2. Both parties were flexible. In the end, I gave up one piece that had originally been on my "untouchable" list, and another piece that I was willing to include, but would gladly have kept. For his part, Robert respected my limits, and never pushed to get something that I said that I definitely didn't want to trade. We both sacrificed a little, but at a level that allowed us both to be happy with the end result.

  3. The conversation remained cordial and professional at every juncture. More than once, I've ended a negotiation when the other party became (in my opinion, which in this circumstance is the only one that matters) unpleasant to deal with. Hey, it's my art — I've worked hard for the money that paid for it. I'm not going to watch it go to someone who's nasty to me.
Thanks to Robert for an excellent trade. Thanks also to the great Bair for lending his creative genius to the piece that started the ball rolling.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, January 08, 2009

There's a new zombie in town

I'm not an especially sentimental sort — as regular visitors here will attest — but it makes me sad to see the icons of my youth fade from view.

Just moments ago, I received an e-mail announcing the passing of Bob Wilkins, the longtime host of KTVU's Creature Features. I spent many Friday and Saturday nights in the 1970s and early '80s enjoying cheesy horror and sci-fi flicks with the urbane, bespectacled Mr. Wilkins and his eventual successor in the host's rocking chair, John Stanley.

More than four years ago, I waxed nostalgic in this space about Creature Features and its profound impact on my adolescent years. Rather than reinventing the torture wheel, I'll simply invite you to check out that Halloween 2004 post.

I was privileged to meet Bob Wilkins in person a few years ago, when he made what I believe was his final guest appearance at WonderCon. Bob was obviously in ill health at that time, so I was glad that I took the opportunity to express to him my thanks for all the hours of entertainment. I'm even more glad now.

Keep that coffin lid tightly closed, Bob. You never know what might be trying to get in.

Or out.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

So long, Stacey's

Sad, but not shocking, news in today's Chronicle: Stacey's Bookstore, a landmark on downtown San Francisco's Market Street for 85 years, is closing its doors.

When I was an undergrad at San Francisco State a quarter-century (egads!) ago, my schedule often included large gaps between morning and late afternoon or evening classes, or between classes and my work shift at the campus convenience store. I would frequently hop the Muni Metro M-Line into downtown to pass the time. Stacey's was among my favorite hangouts. It's kind of depressing to see it go.

That leads me to another thought, however...

I don't understand how bookstores survive at all, these days.

Now, I say that as a person who's been a voracious reader for well over 40 years, and who loves books and the retailers who sell them. I've been known to while away hundreds of blissful hours merely browsing the stacks in bookstores.

But seriously, with the advent of Amazon and eBay, I rarely buy books in a brick-and-mortar bookstore anymore. Why would I, when I can get anything I can find in a local store — along with a limitless number of titles that I'd never find in a store — online, almost invariably at a price considerably less than I'd pay if I drove to the store to buy? Most of the time, I can combine a couple of purchases to get free shipping, and within a few days the books get delivered right to my door.

Does that suck for bookstores and the people who work in them? Yes, it does.

Is it my personal responsibility to keep bookstores in business? No, it isn't.

I know how that sounds, but it's economic reality. I have only so much money. Where I can save a buck or three, I have a fiscal responsibility to my family to do so. That's why I fill up at Costco instead of at a locally owned gas station that's a few blocks closer to my house, but that consistently charges about ten cents per gallon more than Costco does. Those dimes add up.

Someone may argue that there's a greater good in supporting local small businesses beyond shopping for price. That's as may be. If I had unlimited financial resources, I might be willing to shoulder that greater good. But I have a family to feed, and bills to pay, and my own small business to run. That's the only greater good about which I can afford to be concerned.

I mourn for brick-and-mortar bookstores. In any business, however — my own included — if you can't compete, you die.

If you're going to charge more for a product, you need a seductive reason — it's a talent-based product, say, and your talent is superior to (or merely better suited to the job than) someone else's. For example, a restaurant may get away with charging higher prices if its food is qualitatively better than the food at the joint down the street.

For a static commodity, the quality of which is irrelevant to the source — a book, to get back to our original point — the competition points are convenience and price. If Amazon will send it to my house, thus saving me time and fossil fuel, and simultaneously save me 20%, it's not even a question. Unless I absolutely have to read the book today, and I can't remember the last time that need arose.

It isn't pretty. But then, life rarely is.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

It's hard in Oakland for a pimp

The Hughes Brothers speak the truth: "Oakland is a pimpin' town."

Apparently, the only people who won't acknowledge that truth are in Oakland city government.

Allen and Albert Hughes, most often referred to collectively as the Hughes Brothers (because their last name is Hughes, and they're... well... brothers), are fraternal twin filmmakers best known for their uncompromising depictions of urban street life, as portrayed in their dramatic films Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, and the documentary American Pimp. (The Hughes Brothers also masterminded the comic book adaptation From Hell, starring Johnny Depp as a 19th-century London detective stalking Jack the Ripper.)

The latest Hughes project is an upcoming HBO drama series entitled Gentlemen of Leisure, about a middle-aged pimp struggling with the responsibilities of fatherhood and family life. The series is set in Oakland, and the Hughes Brothers are eager, for the sake of verisimilitude, to film the show on location.

So far, Mayor Ron Dellums and the Oakland City Council are having none of it. The council has to date refused to approve the Hughes Brothers' permits to begin filming on the streets of Oakland. According to Mayor Dellums, a TV show about pimps doesn't fit his vision of what Oakland is.

Never mind the fact that the rest of the world — including a slew of big-name hip-hop artists from Oakland — sees the city exactly that way.

It's no secret to anyone who follows American popular culture that Oakland is one of the hubs of the hip-hop/rap scene, which has made a cottage industry out of "pimps and hos." (The hip-hop crew Three 6 Mafia won the Academy Award for Best Original Song four years ago, for the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp.") Hyphy, an entire "brand" of hip-hop music and style, originated in Oakland and its surrounding communities. Rap pioneer Too Short, perhaps the biggest hip-hop star to arise from the East Bay scene, built his entire career explicitly proclaiming the glories of the pimping life in Oakland.

The Oakland city fathers may not like that image. It's disingenuous, however, to deny that it exists, or to stand in the way of legitimate artists documenting it.

For their part, the Hughes Brothers have stated that if the City Council won't grant them permits to lens Gentlemen of Leisure in Oakland, they'll move the production to another city, while leaving the show's fictional setting in Oakland. That means another community will benefit from the economic uplift and job creation that follows a major television production, while struggling Oakland will lose out, even as its likeness — for better or worse — is portrayed onscreen.

If you can't change perception, Mayor Dellums, you may as well pimp it out.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Gimme dat wine

It's true — you really can find just about anything on the Internet.

Had I doubted this truism, the presence of not one, but two Web sites devoted to the cheap, alcohol-fortified wines favored by Skid Row denizens — the folks we used to call "winos" back in the day — would convince me.

Bum Wine — you really can't get less politically correct than that — focuses its attention on "the Big Five" wines targeting the habitual drunkard: Cisco, MD 20/20, Night Train, Wild Irish Rose, and the legendary Thunderbird. The site couples hilarious commentary ("If you like to smell your hand after pumping gas, look no further than Thunderbird") with the results of decidedly unscientific tests ("Some of our researchers indicated that [Night Train] gave them a NyQuil-like drowsiness, and perhaps this is why they put 'night' in the name").

Among the evaluative information to be found at Bum Wine: Thunderbird is the worst tasting of the Big Five, but Cisco (a product of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware) is to be preferred for its intoxicating qualities. MD 20/20 — or "Mad Dog," as it's known in certain circles — generates the highest degree of internal warmth for the consumer.

The writing style at Bum Wine reminds me of Las Vegas on 25 Cents a Day, a terrific place to get unvarnished information about the absolute cheapest eats, lodging, and entertainment in America's favorite vacation destination. I'm reasonably certain that the two sites are unrelated, however.

In case Bum Wine is just a mite too refined for your tastes, there's Ghetto Wine, which mostly forgoes the witty commentary in favor of a photographic record of the Big Five, as well as past and present products of similar ilk — including Fred Sanford's beloved Ripple. (Children of the '70s will recall that Fred recommended a mixture of ginger ale and Ripple, a concoction he dubbed "Champipple.")

Being a teetotaler myself, I can't attest to the veracity of the data on either of these sites. I'm also a bit incredulous that the folks most inclined toward the consumption of fortified wines conduct their market research online.

I do, however, recall a summer job during my high school days, when I was employed as a stock clerk at a gas station mini-mart. One of my chief responsibilities was replenishing the refrigerated case in which the beer and wine were displayed. Our tiny shop did a land-office business in T-Bird (along with slightly less toxic, but equally cheap, potions such as Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill and Annie Green Springs Country Cherry) that summer.

I can't shake the feeling that somewhere in the Great Beyond, Fred Sanford is raising a paper cup of Champipple in salute.

As the venerable radio jingle used to trumpet: "What's the word? Thunderbird!"

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Jewels are a girl's best friend

It's the first Comic Art Friday of 2009, and this one's for the ladies.

This eye-catching installment in my Common Elements commission series features a pair of largely unsung heroines. In the foreground is Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, who starred in her own eponymous series from DC Comics in the 1980s. In the background is Jessica Jones, protagonist of two recent Marvel Comics series, Alias and The Pulse, in her guise as the superheroine Jewel. The artist is Mitch Foust, whose work has appeared numerous times on Comic Art Friday over the years, but who makes his Common Elements debut with this lovely drawing.

As comics historian Don Markstein observes, Amethyst was a terrific character who suffered from a criminal lack of editorial confidence. In her original series, published in 1983, Amethyst offered a near-perfect appeal to an audience of preteen and teenage girls. She lived in a magical fantasy world; she transformed from a plucky if nondescript preadolescent named Amy into a beautiful and powerful young adult princess; she earned the love of a handsome prince without being subservient to him; she traveled about on a flying unicorn.

As written by Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn and drawn by Ernie Colón, Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld was a fun, exciting story that, while intended for girls, made great entertainment for readers of both genders and all ages. It marked one of the horrifyingly few attempts by the major, mainstream American comics publishers to provide well-crafted heroic fantasy for the young female market. (Archie Comics' current Sabrina the Teenage Witch series, written and drawn by the brilliant Tania del Rio, is another fine example.)

And then, DC editorial decided that Amethyst needed to be a superhero. Or maybe a supervillain.

Things got ugly and depressing after that.

I continue to hope against realistic hope that DC will someday reprint the original Amethyst series in trade paperback, in a format that would appeal to the girls who today read shojo manga, or shojo-influenced American fare like Sabrina. They'd have a hit on their hands.

Like Amethyst, Jessica Jones isn't really a superhero in the conventional sense, despite the fact that she appears here in her short-lived Jewel super-identity. In most of her adventures, Jessica leads the life of a relatively normal human — she's a private detective in Alias, and a journalist in The Pulse — who maintains an intimate connection to the superheroic world through her relationships with her lover, and later husband, Luke Cage (the Avenger formerly known as Power Man) and other superheroes and villains.

Jessica still possesses her Jewel superpowers — notably super-strength, limited invulnerability, and flight — but she no longer uses a dual identity or wears a costume. Although her marriage and friendships keep her involved in the major events of the Marvel Universe, including the recent Civil War and Secret Invasion, Jessica's first concern these days is being a mother to Danielle, her and Luke's baby daughter.

The two series in which Jessica played the lead role are well worth searching out. As with Amethyst, Alias and The Pulse represent rare opportunities to see a positive woman character as the focus of a mainstream, female-targeted American comic.

I wish those opportunities were not so rare. But I'm only one guy.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Westlake postscript

Well, this was a sad way to end a year...

Donald E. Westlake
, one of the great mystery novelists of our time, died yesterday.

Westlake was a prolific creator who wrote in a variety of styles, from the comic caper novels he wrote under his own name, including The Hot Rock (adapted into a 1972 film starring Robert Redford), to the gritty crime novels he wrote under the nom de plume Richard Stark, most featuring the brutal criminal mastermind known only as Parker. Westlake's first Stark/Parker novel, The Hunter, was filmed twice: as Point Blank (with Lee Marvin) in 1967, and as Payback (with Mel Gibson) in 1999.

My favorite Westlake books were a series of mysteries he wrote in the late 1960s and early '70s, about a self-loathing former cop named Mitch Tobin. Mitch was a fascinating character — his partner was killed when Mitch failed to provide him backup during a bust, because at the time of the incident, Mitch was in bed with the partner's wife. Consumed by guilt and depression, Mitch withdrew from everyday life, occupying his time by building a useless brick wall in his back yard. On occasion, he would get dragged into some circumstance that compelled him to exercise his detective skills.

I believe the five Mitch Tobin books, which Westlake wrote using the pseudonym Tucker Coe — Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death; Murder Among Children; Wax Apple; A Jade in Aries; and Don't Lie to Me — have all been out of print for years. But if you stumble across one of them at a used bookstore, a garage sale, or your local library, and if you enjoy a good mystery featuring a dark yet quirky protagonist, I recommend them.

My favorite Westlake-as-Westlake book was his 1976 novel Dancing Aztecs. Like many of his stories, it's a crime caper wrapped in comedic trappings, featuring a gang of hapless crooks who can't seem to do anything right. The title refers to the book's McGuffin, a set of 16 identical statues, only one of which is the real (and valuable) McCoy. Another must-read, if you get the opportunity.

When he wasn't writing books at a phenomenal rate, Westlake also dabbled in screenplays. He received an Academy Award nomination for The Grifters, a terrific caper flick directed by Stephen Frears, the screenplay for which Westlake adapted from a Jim Thompson novel. Westlake also wrote the 1987 horror classic The Stepfather, which made a cult star out of Terry O'Quinn nearly two decades before Lost.

In addition, Westlake created the legendary TV flop Supertrain, which almost bankrupted NBC in the fall of 1979. But then, to quote the title of a 1977 Westlake novel, Nobody's Perfect.

Somewhere on my bookshelves I have an old book entitled Murder Ink, containing all manner of interesting trivia about mysteries and their authors. In that book, Westlake conducts a hilarious and informative interview as himself as well as three of his literary alter egos: Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, and Timothy J. Culver, under which name Westlake penned a political thrilled called Ex Officio. I'll have to dig that out and reread it in Westlake's honor.

Thanks for all the unforgettable stories, and especially those wonderful characters, Don. I'll miss you.

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