Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No uvas for you!

Monday, March 30, 2009

New sheriff in Trebekistan

I'm several days late in getting to this, but, well, life happens.

Here's a belated yet heartfelt salute to Dan Pawson, who emerged triumphant in this season's Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. Dan pulled out a hard-fought victory over two worthy co-finalists, Larissa Kelly and Aaron Schroeder, in the 25th Anniversary ToC taped at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

I had a premonition when I first wrote in this space — more than a year ago — about Dan's Jeopardy! skills that a Tournament title might be in his future. As it turned out, I was correct. That means next to nothing, however. I am notorious lousy at sizing up the field in Jeopardy! tournaments, even after having played in three of them. (For the benefit of any new arrivals, those three were the 1988 Tournament of Champions, Super Jeopardy! in 1990, and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005.) When you fill a room with top-level Jeopardy! players, anything can happen, and often does. In this instance, I believe that the strongest player came away with the grand prize.

Well played, Mr. Pawson. Congratulations also to Larissa and Aaron, who helped make this one of the most memorable two-game finals in ToC history.

Speaking of Jeopardy!, I just finished reading Bob Harris's excellent book, Prisoner of Trebekistan, in which Bob spins a hilarious, often surprisingly heart-tugging tale about his career as a Jeopardy! champion. I had the pleasure of meeting Bob during my second-round taping in the UToC, and he's every bit as charming and funny as his book would lead you to believe.

The fact that I personally relate to many of the anecdotes Bob shares added to my personal connection with the book, but it's a fun read even if you've never been a quiz show contestant. If you dig Jeopardy!, or simply enjoy a behind-the-scenes peek at the inner workings of television, I enthusiastically recommend Prisoner of Trebekistan.

Even though Bob neglected to mention me in it.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Ye gods!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of comics artist José Gonzalez — known to his legions of fans as "Pepe" — who passed away on March 17 at the age of 70.

Acclaimed as a legend in his native Spain, Gonzalez was best known on these shores for his early 1970s work on the Warren Publishing title Vampirella. Such preeminent talents as Frank Frazetta (who painted the very first Vampirella cover) and Joe Jusko have hailed Gonzalez as one of comics' greatest illustrators.

You will be sadly and deeply missed, Pepe.

As demonstrated by Pepe Gonzalez, the highest honor that any artist can achieve is the admiration of his or her fellow artists. In any field, the talents most revered are those whose greatest fans are their peers. I'm fortunate to have in my comic art collection a handful of pieces by artists who've reached that level of accolade — such legends as Tony DeZuniga, Alex Niño, Adam Hughes, and the late Mike Wieringo, to mention just a few.

To mention just one more...

Steve "The Dude" Rude.

Perhaps most famed as the co-creator (with writer Mike Baron) of Nexus, one of the seminal superhero comics of the 1980s, Rude has the well-earned reputation of "artists' artist." His style reflects the vision of two of the medium's most influential geniuses, Jack Kirby and Alex Toth, but merges those precedents with original flair and modern sensibility. In today's comics world, no one's art looks quite like Steve Rude's.

I dreamed up the Common Elements pairing shown above — the mighty Thor and the mighty Isis — specifically with Rude in mind to draw it. To be honest, I never thought that would happen. Rude accepts commissions infrequently, and is known to be selective about the subject matter in those he does take on. (He doesn't like to draw Batman or Green Lantern, for example, even though I can think of few superheroes better suited to his approach than those two.) When opportunity presented itself to add a Rude to my Common Elements gallery, I suggested this, and hoped for the best.

And the best is precisely what The Dude delivered.

My fascination with Isis, star of that pinnacle of '70s Saturday mornings, The Secrets of Isis, has been extensively documented in this space. Although I own an attractive gallery of Isis commissions, this is the Mighty One's Common Elements debut.

Thor makes his second Common Elements appearance here. Previously, the God of Thunder squared off with John Henry Irons — better known as Steel — in one of the earliest entries in the series: "Showdown," penciled by the inimitable Trevor Von Eeden and inked by the dependable Joe Rubinstein.

Although this Isis-meets-Thor spectacular is Steve Rude's first shot at Common Elements (one would hope that it won't be his last), it marks the second occasion on which he's drawn a commission for me. Several years back, Rude created one of the highlights of my Mary Marvel gallery — this bombastic pinup in which the World's Mightiest Maiden artfully dodges a plethora of ominous-looking projectiles.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

American Idol is dead, and I'm feeling a little Taylor Hicks myself

In case you're wondering when SSTOL's traditional breakdown of the year's American Idol contestants is coming...

...don't hold your breath.

Seriously, this year's Idol class is far and away the weakest in the show's history. That's saying a lot for a series that has foisted such dubious talents as Kevin "Chicken Little" Covais, Carmen "Can't Buy a Tune" Rasmusen, Kellie "Dumb as Two Bags of Silicone" Pickler, and the infamous Sanjaya "Fauxhawk" Malakar on the American public.

Not only is there not a single performer (and I'm using that word loosely) in the AI '09 field whose CD I'd want to hear — never mind buy — but there isn't even one about whom I care enough to write an entire paragraph.

So I'm not gonna.

You're on your own, America.

SwanShadow... out!

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Happy birthday, Supergirl!

Twenty years ago today, at precisely 5:02 p.m., my only child — a daughter — entered the world.

Where did the last two decades go?

KM — in spite of the paternal half of her genetic pool — has grown up to be an astounding young woman. She's smart — Dean's Highest Honors last semester — funny, charming, and loves horses, In 'n' Out Burger, and Shemar Moore.

She also loves the Giants and Warriors, which means that she is both discriminating and endowed with a insanely high tolerance for pain.


She is no longer my teenager.

As long-time SSTOL readers are aware, "Supergirl" is one of my nicknames for KM. (This despite the fact that, as a petite brunette, she's really more a Mary Marvel than a Supergirl.) The sobriquet stems from the fact that for several years, one of KM's favorite items of apparel was a pink hoodie with a Kryptonian shield emblazoned across the chest.

Happy 20th, Supergirl! Welcome to the Land of Beyond Teenagerness. Your mom and I love you more than all the snickerdoodles in the whole wide world.

Just don't go all Power Girl on us before your time.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

You're 16, you're beautiful, and you're mine

For you Bracketology fanatics out there...

I accurately predicted 14 of the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.

My two misses:

West Regional: #5 Purdue vs. #1 UConn. I had picked #4 Washington over Purdue to face the Huskies.

East Regional: #4 Xavier vs. #1 Pitt. My bracket had #12 Wisconsin getting by Xavier and meeting Pittsburgh.

I nailed all of the other match-ups. Go me!

I'm especially proud of choosing Arizona, the #12 seed in the Midwest Regional, when a lot of prognosticators wrote the Wildcats off in the first round. Yes, Arizona played miserably the last month of the regular season, but I knew they'd ratchet up their skills for the tourney. The 'Cats are hungry to prove themselves in the wake of their quick (and often bizarre) succession of head coaching turnovers, launched by longtime guru Lute Olson's health problems.

Hope your brackets are shaping up as well.

Be sure to check out the North Carolina-Gonzaga game on Friday night. That one has the potential to be the most exciting game of the entire tournament. You heard it first from your Uncle Swan.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Daughters and dragons

My daughter KM celebrates her 20th birthday next Wednesday.

How appropriate, then, that we foreshadow her double-decade observance with a double-daughter Common Elements artwork?

I refer, of course, to the pair of heavily-armed young ladies dominating the uppermost corners here.

At left, rocking the katana, that's Colleen Wing. At right, packing a pistol and a bionic arm, that's Misty Knight. Together, they're variously known as the proprietors of Knightwing Restorations, one-third of the most recent incarnation of Heroes for Hire, and — most importantly for the present moment — the Daughters of the Dragon.

The Daughters' imposing, fin-domed companion? He's the Savage Dragon, eponymous star of the long-running Image Comics series. (Just to be clear: Misty and Colleen, although called the Daughters of the Dragon, are not the daughters of the Savage Dragon. As cool as that would be.)

And who better to illustrate this propulsive threesome of urban crimebusters than Ben Dunn, creator of the popular manga series, Ninja High School? Well, nobody better, actually, which is why I handed Ben this choice assignment. As you can see, Ben flat crushed it, in his unique, energetic style.

As both individuals and as a team, the Daughters of the Dragon enjoy a lengthy and storied history in the annals of Marvel Comics, going all the way back to the swinging 1970s.

Misty and Colleen appeared frequently in the early adventures of hero-for-hire Luke Cage (then known as Power Man) and his partner Danny Rand, a.k.a. the martial artist Iron Fist. Misty was involved in a long-term relationship with Danny, and later had a brief dalliance with Luke. At various times over the decades, the Daughters of the Dragon have joined Cage, Iron Fist, and others in the superhero private investigation firm (you guessed it) Heroes for Hire.

The Savage Dragon owns the distinction of being one of the longest-running characters in modern comics to have the majority of his adventures scripted and drawn by his creator — in the Dragon's case, Image Comics co-founder (and formerly publisher) Erik Larsen.

A humanoid being of indeterminate origin, the Dragon (so named because of his green skin and prominent cranial fin) found purpose in life as a Chicago police officer, while at the same time trying to discover his true identity. Nearly 20 years after his debut, the Dragon learned that he was really an alien from outer space. (Well, duh.)

Speaking of 20 years...

Did I mention that my daughter — who is not a dragon, an alien, or even a ninja — turns 20 next Wednesday?

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

What's Up With That? #73: Eating from the bottom

In the aftermath of my less-than-complimentary — yet entirely accurate — St. Patrick's Day comment regarding the quality (or lack thereof) of Irish cuisine, I got to thinking...

Why is it that the further north of the equator one travels, the lousier the food becomes?

In the so-called Old World, this principle is eminently obvious. The North Africans — the Moroccans, Ethiopians, Eritreans, et al. — have amazing food. (When they have food, which is a whole other issue.)

Their neighbors on the northern seaboard of the Mediterranean — the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italians, and Greeks (having lived in Greece for two years, I can attest personally to the latter) — are legendary for their culinary prowess.

But then, as you continue up the continent, things start to get dicey. German and Polish food, outside of the occasional sausage? Not all that delectable. Russian cuisine? Unless you're a huge fan of beet soup, nothing to write home about.

English food? Notoriously awful. Dazzling language, superlative literature, a world-changing culture. But you wonder how they came up with those great traditions while stuffing their bellies with boiled beef and mashed peas. Irish cuisine? As previously noted, the less said about that, the better.

By the time you've traveled into Scandinavia, people are eating reindeer innards and fish soaked in lye, for pity's sake. That's not food — that's chemical warfare.

The same phenomenon occurs in the Western Hemisphere.

Anywhere you go in the Caribbean region and Central America, you're going to find spectacular dining — spicy, diverse, and flavorful. Mexico? Well, there's a reason for all those taquerias and faux-Mexican chain restaurants that proliferate north of the border. Our neighbors to the south know how to cook.

Here in the United States? Well, much like our language, our cuisine mostly cobbled together from stuff other people cooked before us. Still, we make do, especially across the nether region of this great country of ours — from the fiery specialties of the Southwest to the manly barbecue of Texas, from the Cajun and Creole delights of Louisiana to the deep-fried comfort food of the Deep South.

But here again, as you move north, the eating gets shaky. The Upper Midwest? They'll sneak some lutefisk on the steam-table smorgasbord as soon as look at you. And have you ever tried to get a decent meal in New England? I've been to Maine, and aside from the lobster, it wasn't pretty.

Canada? Does the phrase "back bacon" ring any bells? How about moose jerky? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Even the Far East — to use that dated and Caucasocentric term — suffers from the same pattern.

A quick whirl across southern Asia reveals one culinary wonderland after another: India, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines — all incredible places to grab a bite, as evidenced by the abundance of eateries featuring delicacies from these locales.

China? Hello? I'll bet you've got some of those little white paper cartons fermenting in your kitchen trash at this very moment.

Then you get up to Japan. Love that sushi, sashimi, and soba... but they're also eating some ghastly stuff. Have you ever smelled natto? Trust me, you don't want to, much less attempt to consume any. And in what other country is eating poisonous blowfish that could kill you with a single nibble someone's idea of a fun date?

You might as well stop at Japan, because progressing any further north into the Asiatic tundra will land you in the realm of yak loin and Lord only knows what else.

So, again, I'll pose the imponderable...

Why does food get so much better as you head south toward the equator, and so much more inedible as you leave it going north?

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I'm never going back to my old school

Nothing like a little excitement.

A telephone call to the CHP sent our local high school into lockdown this morning, with a report that an unidentified male with a handgun was spotted in one of the restrooms.

Grim-faced officers descended on Rancho Cotate High School to conduct an intensive, room-by-room search, which turned up nothing suspicious. From our house about a half-mile away, I could hear law enforcement and news-gathering helicopters buzzing overhead.

After about two hours, police sounded the all-clear. Students and teachers were given a 15-minute break to collect themselves, and perhaps inhale some fresh outdoor air. Classes then resumed without incident, although an undetermined number of parents took their students out of school for the remainder of the day.

When I was a student at Rancho Cotate 30 years (jinkies!) ago, the most noteworthy item one ever encountered in the men's room was the sickly-sweet aroma of burning cannabis sativa.

How times change.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A retro ride in a Superstar Limo

Last night, I experienced one of those bizarre pop cultural crossover coincidences that happens every now and again.

I was browsing some Disneyland-related sites — because you know I loves me some Disneyland, and I actually will get to spend a few days in Anaheim this summer — when I decided to check out this YouTube video showcasing one of the Disneyland Resort's former attractions, Superstar Limo. At the very moment that the late-but-unlamented ride's Audio-Animatronic version of Drew Carey appeared on my monitor, my television — tuned at the time to a 17-year-old stand-up comedy special on HBO — displayed the youthful visage of Drew Carey, from way back before anyone knew who Drew Carey was.

How weird is that?

In case you're wondering what in the name of Walter Elias Disney I'm babbling about, Superstar Limo was one of the original attractions at Disney's California Adventure, the amusement park that now occupies what used to be the main Disneyland parking lot at the corner of Harbor and Katella in Anaheim.

A so-called "dark ride" in the classic Disney park model — think Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, or others of that ilk — Superstar Limo allowed the visitor to pretend that he or she was a celebrity riding to a big Hollywood premiere in (what else) a miniaturized limousine. Along the route, one encountered Audio-Animatronic versions of a number of then-current pop culture icons, including Regis Philbin, Cindy Crawford, Whoopi Goldberg, and the aforementioned Mr. Carey, who at the time of DCA's opening was the star of a hit sitcom on ABC (the network of Disney, as you are certainly aware).

Superstar Limo was roundly panned by DCA attendees — both for its corporate-pandering concept and its lackluster execution — and closed about a year or so after the park opened. The current Monsters Inc. attraction now occupies the space its short-lived predecessor inhabited.

My memory of Superstar Limo was that it was cheesy but fun in typical Disneyland fashion. The recording of the experience on YouTube bears this out, I think. The main problem I had with the ride was that, had it survived, it would quickly have become dated. How big a star is, say, Tim Allen or Melanie Griffith today, more than a decade and a half later? It would have cost Disney megabucks to continually replace passé show-biz personalities with celebs that kids, especially, would recognize — megabucks that Disney has shown little inclination to spend in its upkeep of the Disneyland Resort.

Still, it's a kick to recall what it was like while it lasted.

Potentially fascinating historical trivia: The original concept of Superstar Limo when DCA was in the development phase called for a simulated high-speed escape from a band of aggressive paparazzi. Then, the Princess of Wales met her untimely demise during... well... a high-speed escape from a band of aggressive paparazzi. Disney's Imagineers retooled the ride's storyline at the last moment to avoid the grisly and unfortunate connection.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

What's Up With That? #72: Sci Fi? I thought you said Hi Fi

In what must surely be one of the most ludicrous marketing gambits of all time, the Sci Fi Channel announced today that it is rebranding itself as "Syfy."

Umm... what?

According to Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci Fi's — excuse me, Syfy's — parent company, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment, "We couldn't own Sci Fi; it's a genre. But we can own Syfy."

Gotcha, Bonnie. Glad you've got your priorities in order.

Fanboys, geeks, nerds, and other societal rejects will be relieved to learn that Syfy (the channel) will continue to present Sci Fi (the genre), and that most of it will suck swamp water, in keeping with the channel's long-standing tradition.

In related news, the Food Network revealed today that it, too, is changing its name, after network executives discovered that "food" is a generic term for "stuff you eat." Henceforth, the channel will be known as the Guy Fieri Network.

Said a spokesperson, "We can't own food. But we can and do own Guy."

Also, FOX is reported to be searching for a pithy, trademarkable brand, now that evidence has come to light that "fox" is actually a small, furry, dog-like animal that lives in the woods.

More on this development is forthcoming.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

The wonders of WonderCon, part two

When last we gathered for Comic Art Friday, we looked at four of the commissions I garnered at WonderCon 2009. Today, we'll check out the rest of the art that followed me home from the West Coast's second-largest annual comics and sci-fi/fantasy convention.

One of this year's special guests at WonderCon was the ever-popular Aaron Lopresti, currently the artist on Wonder Woman. In addition to being a dynamite artist, Aaron is also a terrific guy, and I always look forward to seeing and chatting with him at conventions. This year, I offered Aaron the opportunity to draw anything he wanted. After some thought and discussion, we agreed that he'd take his hand to the late, great Dave Stevens's Rocketeer.

David "BroHawk" Williams is another artist whose presence is always a welcome sight. In my opinion — and in this space, mine's the only one that matters — David is one of the truly special talents in working in comics today. Because much of his work appears in Marvel Comics' all-ages line, Marvel Adventures, David often doesn't get the recognition I believe he deserves. This exquisitely designed Supergirl, rendered in tonal ink wash, gives testimony to his unique abilities.

My signature commission gallery, Common Elements, increased by two at this year's WonderCon. Tony DeZuniga created this lovely drawing featuring two characters with plant-based themes — Poison Ivy and Black Orchid, the latter of whom Tony co-created while working for DC Comics in the 1970s. His wry comment: "For some reason, that character never seemed to catch on."

Although Common Elements was a well-developed theme by the time Ron Lim drew his first entry in the series, I've always considered him its conceptual godfather. It was Ron's casual suggestion at WonderCon several years ago that first started me thinking about a series of two-character commissions. For that reason, I'm always pleased when Ron can work a new Common Elements piece into his always-busy con commission list. Here, Ron teams a character he knows well — American Dream, the alternate-universe protégé of Captain America, from the Lim-penciled series Avengers Next — with another he had never drawn before: American Eagle. Veteran inker Danny Bulanadi added the finishing touches.

And finally, proving that WonderCon is truly the gift that keeps on giving: Jason Metcalf ran out of time at the con before he could get to my Valkyrie commission, so he finished the piece at home and shipped it to me this week.

Thanks to all of the artists, writers, organizers, and other folks who made WonderCon 2009 another successful and enjoyable experience.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Movies is movies, books is books

I've been reading with bemusement numerous online threads about the new Watchmen film released last week.

I haven't yet seen the movie, but I think it's funny how many diehard fans of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's graphic novel are up in arms about changes that director Zach Snyder introduced into the film version. It's identical to the furor that arose among Tolkienistas when Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy debuted, or among Marvel Comics aficionados over the first Spider-Man and X-Men movies.

From my perspective, these arguments are ridiculous.

Last night, I finished reading Rex Pickett's novel Sideways, upon which Alexander Payne based his Academy Award-winning motion picture. Sideways the film is one of my favorite movies of the last decade. It is, however, markedly different in many key respects from Pickett's novel. Some of the adjustments are minor; others fundamentally alter the nature of both the major characters and the storyline.

And that's okay.

You know why that's okay? Because a novel is a novel, and a film is a film. They are different media, with different requirements and different approaches.

Peter Jackson understood that when he adapted Tolkien's work. As much as he loved the original novels, Jackson realized that certain aspects simply wouldn't work as well on screen as they did on the page. So he changed things. Not out of disrespect or hubris, but because changes needed to be made to effectively translate the overall story into cinema.

Sam Raimi faced similar challenges with Spider-Man, so Peter Parker got organic webshooters instead of mechanical ones. Bryan Singer faced them with X-Men, so Wolverine became a strapping six-footer in black leather instead of a burly five-footer in yellow spandex.

Whatever tinkering Zach Snyder found necessary in bringing Watchmen to the screen, I'm sure that the issues were of like kind.

In case you suppose that my indifference to cinematic alteration is directly connected to my feelings toward the source material — my lack of enthusiasm for Alan Moore's oeuvre, and Watchmen in particular, is well documented — I assure you that it is not.

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who loves Spider-Man more than I have over the past four decades, but I was perfectly fine with the built-in spinnerets and the armor-clad Green Goblin. Those changes made sense in a film context. In the same way, although I considered myself an ardent Tolkien admirer in my younger days, none of Jackson's twists and tweaks troubled me in the least. I didn't even miss Tom Bombadil.

I understand the passion that fans of a published work have for their favorite stories and characters. Those fans, in turn, need to understand that telling a story in moving pictures and sound is not the same as telling that story in written words (or in static words and pictures) on a printed page. Different media, different ballgame.

In other words, get over it.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

I'll be home for Purim

A joyous Purim to all my friends of the Jewish persuasion!

For the benefit of my fellow goyim, Purim commemorates the events depicted in the Biblical book of Esther, in which a young Jewish woman marries the king of the Persian Empire. Using her influence on her powerful husband, Esther ultimately saves her people from a genocidal government official named Haman.

Which reminds me...

If you haven't seen Christopher Guest's film For Your Consideration, you should. It's not one of Guest's familiar "mockumentaries" (i.e., Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and the Rob Reiner-directed, Guest-scripted film that launched the genre, This is Spinal Tap), but it features most of the same cast and is almost as funny.

For Your Consideration centers around the production and release of a low-budget film starring three hapless actors played by Harry Shearer, Catherine O'Hara, and Parker Posey. When the trio are nominated for Academy Awards, everything in their lives changes.

The original working title of the film-within-a-film is Home for Purim. (Its plot revolves around a Jewish family in the Deep South during World War II, whose adult daughter — the Parker Posey character — comes out as a lesbian.) When pressured by an anti-Semitic studio executive (British comic Ricky Gervais), Home for Purim's producers are compelled to "tone down the Jewishness" and retitle their movie Home for Thanksgiving.

If you and your family celebrate Purim this evening, I hope that you enjoy a grand and memorable celebration.

Don't tone down the Jewishness for anybody.

Memo from the Did You Know? Department, Old Testament Division: Esther is one of two books of the Bible that never mention God. (The Song of Solomon is the other.)

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Friday, March 06, 2009

The wonders of WonderCon, part one

WonderCon 2009 has come and gone, and a fine time was had by all. (Not that I interviewed every one of the 30,000 or so people in attendance. But I didn't hear anyone complaining.)

I'll be sharing in this space today and next Friday several new commissions created last weekend. But first, a few of the other highlights of the con from my perspective.
  • Kudos to the Comic-Con folks, who run WonderCon, on a smoothly managed convention. Many of the glitches I've observed in past years, especially related to the registration and admission process, disappeared this year. Nice to see that the con staff learns from its mistakes.

  • Despite the economy, visitor attendance seemed as brisk as ever. Quite a number of artists who were announced, however, didn't show up. This accounted for a lighter-than-anticipated art haul on my part.

  • I enjoyed renewing acquaintances with several of my favorite artists and fellow fans. It's always a treat to touch bases with the great Tony DeZuniga and his charming wife Tina (two lovelier people, you will not meet in this lifetime), Wonder Woman artist Aaron Lopresti, industry legends Ernie Chan, Ron Lim, and Alex Niño, award-winning cartoonist Keith Knight (with his new baby son, taking in his first con), and caricaturist Walt Davis.

  • I'm not a big autograph hound, but I was tickled to get my Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser trade paperback signed by both writer Howard Chaykin and artist Mike Mignola. When I handed the book to Howard, he noticed Mignola's signature and gave me a quizzical look. "Is Mike here?" he asked. I pointed to Mignola's table two aisles away. I hope the two creators managed to connect during the weekend.

  • The most interesting panel of the several I attended focused on my favorite superhero, the Black Panther. Reginald Hudlin, writer of the current Black Panther comic as well as the upcoming animated series on BET, was joined on the dais by series producer and comics legend Denys Cowan (co-creator of the Milestone Media comics universe) and Marvel Comics editor Axel Alonso. After the panel, I got the chance to thank both Denys and Reggie for their efforts to keep superheroes of color in the public spotlight. It was an emotional moment that I won't soon forget.

  • Other memorable meet-and-greets: Former Buck Rogers star Erin Gray, whom I first met 30 years ago during a Battle of the Network Stars taping at Pepperdine University; one of my voiceover idols, audiobook narrator Scott Brick (more on this over at my voiceover blog); science fiction author David Gerrold, whose book The Trouble With Tribbles (about his experiences penning that infamous Star Trek episode) helped encourage my writing ambitions.
All right already, enough folderol. Let's scope some art.

With his affinity for alien tech, I knew that Star Wars artist Tom Hodges would be a perfect choice to draw the current version of Blue Beetle. This awesome artwork proves my point.

The ever-jovial Ernie Chan, one of my favorite people in the comic art world, added this dynamic pinup to my gallery featuring Taarna from the film Heavy Metal. (Incidentally, have you ever visited the Heavy Metal reference page I published at Squidoo? Well, darn it, you should.)

Speaking of the Black Panther, as I was just a few paragraphs ago, Alex Niño marshaled his inimitable style to deliver this unique take on the King of Wakanda.

Arak, Son of Thunder stands among the countless "forgotten treasures" of comic book history. A DC Comics sword-and-sorcery series starring a Native American hero (fans often jokingly referred to the book as "Conan the Indian"), Arak enjoyed a four-year run in the early 1980s. Tony DeZuniga worked on roughly half the issues in the series, either inking another artist's pencils or contributing both pencils and inks. Here, Tony revisits Arak and his frequent comrade-in-arms, Valda the Iron Maiden, to stunning effect.

Drop back around seven days hence, when we'll review the second stack of WonderCon acquisitions. Until then...

...that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Kindle me this, Batman

I'll admit to being something of a closet Luddite.

Now, I know that sounds peculiar, given my near-constant tethering to a computer and the online world beyond. But it's true.

For years, I avoided owning a cell phone, and now that I do carry one, it's a basic, stripped-down, pay-as-you-go model that doesn't have a camera, voice mail, or any of the usual bells and whistles. I only recently learned how to send text messages (thanks to my collegian daughter). My brief attempts to use a PDA to manage my daily routine devolved into miserable failure.

Today, however, I dragged myself — kicking and screaming — into the new millennium.

My Amazon Kindle arrived.

More precisely, my Amazon Kindle 2.

For the benefit of my fellow technoweenies out there, I speak here of an electronic book reader. Amazon's isn't the only such gizmo on the planet — Sony, among others, manufactures a similar device — but the Kindle represents the current state of the e-book reading art, with its relatively simple interface, sizable catalog (250,000 titles and growing), and instantaneous content downloads.

Amazon began shipping its freshly redesigned second-generation Kindle just last week. Our friendly neighborhood UPS driver delivered mine early this afternoon. (What can Brown do for you? Brown can bring you a Kindle, that's what.)

The Kindle arrives securely packed in a custom-fitted carton. I was surprised to discover when I opened the box that my Kindle was up and running, already knew my name, and displayed on its easy-to-read screen a personalized note to me from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. (Jeff: Have your people call my people. We'll do lunch.)

Purchasing my first handful of books proved insanely quick and effortless. Although it's possible to browse available titles directly from the Kindle, in giddy anticipation of my Kindle's advent I had already selected several books from Amazon's site via my PC. Each transaction required but a single click, and each book deposited itself into my device in the space of a few seconds. Amazon uses Sprint's 3G wireless network to deliver content, so it's possible to order up new reading matter lickety-split with just a fingertip. (And that's without a wireless subscription fee. Sweet.)

Kindle's 6" display employs a technology called E-Ink, which produces a remarkably paper-like, glare-free (there's no backlight, so external illumination is a must) reading surface. Text can be instantly resized into any of six preset increments, which means I'll be able to Kindle even when I misplace my pesky reading glasses. (Curse you, middle age.)

I've read some complaints online about Kindle 2's joystick navigation tool. (The original Kindle used a scrolling wheel.) So far, I'm finding that the joystick, microscopic though it is, works well, even under manipulation by my stubby fingers. The page-forward and page-back buttons are well-placed, and offer just enough resistance that I don't find myself flipping pages when I don't intend to. (Kindle 1's buttons were apparently both larger and looser, and users voiced frustration about losing place too easily.)

Kindle comes equipped with an onboard Oxford American Dictionary, enabling the reader to pull up the definition of any word in the text. Even those of us with voluminous vocabularies strike a stumper every now and then, so that's a cool feature.

I'm also impressed with the slick, streamlined battery-charging cord, which can be plugged into either a wall socket or a USB port. No massive, clunky adapter here. (I hate, hate, hate the ginormous transformer required by my Dell notebook.) I don't know yet how the Kindle's battery life holds up, but given that the electronic ink screen only uses power when the display changes, I'm guessing that the device will run for a good long while without a booster shot.

Amazon offers a book-like leather cover for the Kindle, but I opted for a zippered pouch manufactured by Belkin. Amazon's version actually locks the Kindle into its spine, which seems like a nice idea, but I'll feel better having something that encloses the device all around, given that I'll often be tossing it into a tote bag containing spiral notebooks, pens, and other scratch-inducing items. Plus, now that I've actually handled the Kindle, I'm surprised by its heft (10.2 ounces, according to Amazon). I'll definitely want to spend most of my reading time holding it without the added weight of a cover.

In case you're curious what I'll be reading on my Kindle over the next few weeks, my initial salvo of downloads includes:
  • New works by several of my favorite mystery scribes: Robert B. Parker, Robert Crais, and Harlan (Don't Call Me Robert) Coben.
  • Joe Torre's controversial memoir about his years managing the New York Yankees.
  • Rex Pickett's Sideways — love the movie, keep promising myself that I'd read the book.
  • Prisoner of Trebekistan, by my fellow Jeopardy! alumnus Bob Harris.
For someone who spends as much time as I do sitting around in recording studios and hospital waiting rooms, the Kindle should be a godsend. The device will store approximately 1,500 books, so I can feel my carry bag getting lighter as I type. KJ will also be able to Kindle during her marathon infusion sessions at the oncology center.

Once I've had ample time to explore Kindle's functionality under real-world operating conditions, I'll let you know whether I still believe it's worth the investment.

Read on, Macduff.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Breakfast of cheapskates

Today's blogging is fueled by Don Francisco's Breakfast Blend coffee, a free sample of which I received in yesterday's mail.

You know your Uncle Swan's motto: If it's free, it's for me.

According to the Don Francisco site, their Breakfast Blend is "a gourmet blend designed to help the morning person start the day with gusto." Since I am the further possible creature from "the morning person" (if you look up "morning person" in the dictionary, I'm listed as an antonym), this clearly is not the coffee for me. Which may explain why I'm not enjoying it more.

It's decent enough for what I would think of as supermarket-grade coffee. The flavor profile is dark, not especially complex, and leaves a unpleasantly bitter aftertaste. Part of the problem, I think, is that the beans are ground much too fine. It might make a good espresso, if you like that sort of thing (I don't, particularly), but it's been pulverized too aggressively for use in a drip coffeemaker like my reliable Mr. Coffee.

I've actually purchased a fair amount of Don Francisco's coffee over the years. If you enjoy flavored coffee, they offer some nice varieties. Their Vanilla Nut and Butterscotch Toffee are both pretty tasty as a change of pace from the pure and natural. For the non-hardcore cafficionado, the Don's flavored coffees might be just the ticket. (Stay away from the Eggnog flavor, though. It's cloying and, for lack of a better term, peculiar.)

As for the Breakfast Blend, I'm only giving it two tailfeathers out of a possible five.

A good way to liberate your taste buds from a less-than-excellent free sample is the current featured coffee at your local Starbucks. I've been brewing Bella Vista F.W. Tres Rios (trust me, it's better than that ridiculous appellation makes it sound) every morning for the past few weeks, and it's much more along the lines of what I'd envision a perfect breakfast coffee to be. It's bright and tangy, with a clean, crisp, tropical flavor that finishes smooth and goes down easy.

B.V.F.W.T.R. (did you really think I was typing out that entire moniker again?) is available for a limited time, so get yourself on over to the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady and pick up a bag or two while it's still around.

At least now I'm awake.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

25 years with the Razor

Today on "The Sports Leader" — San Francisco's KNBR 680 AM — afternoon drive host Ralph "The Razor" Barbieri is celebrating his 25th anniversary with the radio station.

If you know anything about the radio business, you know that 25 years in one location is a remarkable achievement.

At the risk of seriously dating myself, I recall when Ralph first joined KNBR as a commentator and host of the evening talk show, Sportsphone 68. (KNBR didn't add the terminal zero until just a few years ago.) In the beginning, I thought Ralph was an obnoxious, self-important, hypocritical jerk. That assessment hasn't changed much in the past quarter-century, but at least I've grown accustomed to him.

The late, legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen first hung the moniker "Razor Voice" on Barbieri shortly after Ralph came to KNBR. At that time, the station was still pursuing a general-interest format of which sports programming was but one component. Caen helped bring Barbieri to the attention of the masses by mocking the broadcaster's raspy, decidedly unappealing vocal quality.

Thus, a career was born.

Aside from Caen's column, the best thing that happened to Ralph occurred halfway through his KNBR tenure, when he was paired with former NBA journeyman Tom Tolbert to form "The Razor and Mr. T." At first, I couldn't imagine the partnership lasting more than a few months, given the cohosts' radically different styles (Ralph the raging pseudo-journalist; Tom the laid-back surfer dude) and perspectives (Ralph is a vegetarian with an MBA from the Wharton School; Tom is a retired pro athlete who loves McDonald's hamburgers). And yet, twelve and a half years later, their show remains KNBR's most popular talkfest. Go figure.

My chief frustration with Ralph has always been that he's a dreadful interviewer — although, to his credit, he's improved slightly over time. When Ralph conducts an interview, it's never about the interview subject — it's always about Ralph and his opinions. Ralph rarely asks a question. Instead, Ralph delivers speeches that may or may not end in questions. The interview subject frequently can't get a word in edgewise.

To test my anecdotal observation, I once took a stopwatch to an interview Ralph was conducting with a member of the Giants organization. Ralph posed one "question" that droned on for nearly three minutes, after which the interviewee got less than 30 seconds of response time before Ralph began interrupting. The rest of the interview proceeded in similar fashion.

Any regular KNBR listener knows that I'm not exaggerating.

Still, the guy has lasted this long for a reason. The banter between Ralph and his long-suffering foil Tolbert is entertaining and lively, and Ralph — despite his frustrating deficiencies as an interviewer — is exactly what sports-talk radio calls for: he's opinionated, he's polarizing, and he's never at a loss for words.

Congratulations to the Razor on his quarter-century celebration.

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