Monday, April 13, 2009

This Bird has flown

Another chunk of my childhood passed away today.

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych has died this afternoon in an apparent accident, at the age of 54.

Fidrych was the wunderkind Detroit Tigers pitcher who took baseball by storm in the summer of 1976. Fidrych — nicknamed "The Bird" because of his striking resemblance to Big Bird, the towering Muppet from Sesame Street — became a household name as much for his antics on the mound as for his prodigious pitching prowess.

A frenetic bundle of nervous energy, Fidrych talked aloud to himself — and occasionally, to the baseball — while pitching. He would kneel on the mound between pitches and groom the dirt with his hands. He'd run over to his teammates and congratulate them with high-fives for making successful infield plays. His infectious enthusiasm made The Bird an overnight superstar.

After starting the year with a 7-1 record, the rookie phenom received the starting assignment for the American League in the 1976 All-Star Game. Fidrych finished the season with a 19-9 record and a 2.34 earned run average. Named the American League Rookie of the Year, he also came in second in the voting for the Cy Young Award.

He was never the same again.

Plagued by injuries beginning in his sophomore campaign, Fidrych would pitch sporadically with the Tigers over the next four seasons. He won only 10 more games after that legendary rookie year. He pitched his last game for the Tigers in 1980, and when Detroit released him at the end of the 1981 season, The Bird was out of the game.

He attempted an unsuccessful minor-league comeback in the Boston Red Sox organization in 1983, but he never got back to The Show.

I had the privilege of seeing The Bird best the Oakland Athletics in a game at the Coliseum during that shining Bicentennial summer. That memory remains one of my all-time favorite baseball moments.

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was truly one of a kind.

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Super freak

I'm not sure why I'd be surprised by this revelation, but...

According to a recently published book by comics historian Craig Yoe, Joe Shuster — the artist half of the creative team who dreamed up Superman — spent a portion of his career in the 1950s drawing sadomasochistic fetish comics featuring characters who look suspiciously like Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

Apparently, it wasn't only kryptonite that made the Man of Steel weak in the knees. Whips and chains did the trick as well.

Yoe's book Secret Identity uncovers (no pun intended) the lurid art Shuster drew for an underground magazine entitled Nights of Horror. An article in USA Today quotes Yoe's observation:
Joe obviously had some very dark fantasies. There's a panel in an early Superman comic book where he has Lois over his knee and is spanking her. But certainly nothing of this depth or extremeness.
As I said, this really doesn't shock me. Plenty of artists from mainstream comics sidelined in erotica, especially back in the days when mainstream comics habitually paid their creators in chicken feed and shoeshines.

To cite a few examples:
  • Wally Wood — one of comics' most talented artists ever, in my (and many other knowledgeable people's) opinion — was a one-man cottage porn industry in his later years.
  • Will Elder, one of the artists who helped make MAD Magazine a household name, drew Little Annie Fanny for Playboy for more than a quarter-century.
  • Bill Ward, who started his career drawing Captain Marvel and Blackhawk before creating the classic "good girl" character Torchy, cranked out hundreds of sexy strips for men's magazines.
  • Adam Hughes, perhaps comics' preeminent present-day "good girl" artist, used to freelance for Penthouse.
I'm sure, though, that more than a few folks will find the blood draining from their faces when they see Superman (or a guy who could be his identical twin brother) letting his freak flag fly.

Great Caesar's ghost, indeed.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Fallen Angel

It's a gray and gloomy day for baseball here in the Golden State.

Appropriate, given the tragic news about the death of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, killed last night in a hit-and-run accident caused by a suspected drunken driver.

Less than 24 hours ago, 22-year-old Adenhart had the world on a string. In his fourth major league start, he pitched six innings of shutout ball against the Oakland Athletics.

Today, he's gone.

I'll say here what I've said numerous times before: There is no punishment severe enough for drunk driving.

I believe that driving under the influence should receive mandatory prison time. No probation. No suspended license. No enforced rehab. No 36 hours in the county slammer. A minimum of one year hard time in the state penitentiary. No plea bargains, no questions asked.

Second-time offenders should be sentenced to a minimum of five years. Third-timers get twenty.

Drunk drivers who kill? Automatic life sentence.

And if someone wanted to argue for making the latter a capital crime, they'd get no protest from me.

Andrew Gallo, the knucklehead who snuffed out the lives of Nick Adenhart and his two friends, Henry Pearson and Courtney Stewart — and who was himself uninjured in the crash — was driving under a suspended license due to a prior drunk driving conviction. If Gallo had been in San Quentin where he belonged — in my opinion, if not the State of California's — three young people with bright futures would be alive today.

My sincere condolences, as well as my deepest empathy as a father, go out to the families of the deceased.

I bear-hugged my daughter when she came home from her college classes today. She thought I was crazy. Perhaps I am.

But life is fragile.

Even when you're 22 years old, and have a million-dollar arm.

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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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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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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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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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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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Monday, December 29, 2008

Frontier justice

I see on the news sites that Ellie Nesler died the other day.

If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it may help jog your memory if I point out that Ellie Nesler was the woman who in 1993 walked into a courtroom in the Gold Rush town of Sonora, California, and shot to death the man being tried for molesting her six-year-old son.

Ellie's initial conviction for voluntary manslaughter was overturned due to some jury shenanigans, but the pistol-packing mama later copped a plea and served three years in prison. Her sentence was actually longer than that, but she received a reduction because she was being treated for breast cancer. The whole episode was chronicled in a made-for-cable movie (USA Network, not Lifetime, but that shows you're thinking) in 1999.

The part of Ellie's story that didn't warrant a teleflick came in 2002, when she was convicted of selling methamphetamine and sent back to the slammer for another four years.

In 2004, while Ellie was cooling her heels at the women's prison in Chowchilla, her son William stomped a guy to death less than an hour after getting out of jail from a previous assault conviction. William is currently serving 25 years to life in the big house.

At the time of the incident that brought her national fame, Ellie Nesler was hailed by some as a heroine and vilified by others as a vigilante.

Now, we can just call her the late Ms. Nesler.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Catwoman's last groove

Not to rain a bummer down on your Yuletide or anything, but...

Eartha Kitt died today.

You young whippersnappers know Ms. Kitt as the voice of Yzma in The Emperor's New Groove, one of the best Disney animated films of the past decade, and its spin-off television series, The Emperor's New School.

Those of us with a few miles on our odometers knew that the multitalented Ms. Kitt possessed many facets. She was an actress; nominated for two Tony Awards, she was a favorite of actor-director Orson Welles (on and off the set, or so the whispers tell). She was a singer; ironically, given her death on Christmas Day, her best-known musical number was the original rendition of the pop-jazz carol "Santa Baby." She was a social activist; her scathing remarks condemning the Vietnam War at a White House function reportedly reduced Lady Bird Johnson, the then-incumbent First Lady, to tears.

Eartha Kitt broke barriers in a number of ways, perhaps most memorably in 1967, when she took over the role of Catwoman in the hit Batman after Julie Newmar left the show. "Color-blind" casting is relatively common today — think of Denzel Washington in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, to cite just one recent instance — but in the '60s, it was practically unheard of that an African-American actor would be cast in a role written for a Caucasian.

Kitt's turn as the Felonious Feline was all the more remarkable in that the character's race was never made an issue. No one on Batman ever seemed to notice that the new Catwoman was black. Again, unheard of in mid-20th century Hollywood.

Kitt's tradition-shattering portrayal opened possibilities for countless other actors to be chosen for roles for which they might never have been considered — such as Halle Berry in the title role in Catwoman.


Let me think of a better example.

How about Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin in Daredevil?

Yeah, that works.

Back to Eartha Kitt...

In addition to her work behind the Disney microphone (for which she earned her second Daytime Emmy just a couple of months ago), the legendary star spent her later years performing her popular cabaret act, acting in the occasional stage production (she toured as the Fairy Godmother in the national company of Cinderella a few years back), and battling colon cancer.

She died less than one month shy of her 82nd birthday.

As the great Ms. Kitt might have said herself... meow.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Comic Art Friday: The Best of 2008

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the grande dame of the Star Trek universe, who passed away yesterday at the age of 76.

The widow of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Majel had a recurring role in the original 1960s series as Nurse Christine Chapel, whose most distinctive characteristic was her unrequited love for Mr. Spock. Majel also appeared as Lwaxana Troi, Deanna Troi's meddlesome mother, in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Off camera, the actress provided the voice of the Enterprise's computer system in both the original series and ST:TNG, as well as that of the feline Lt. M'Ress in Star Trek: The Animated Series.

A beloved fixture for years on the convention circuit, Majel will be missed by Trek's legions of fans.

In addition to it being Comic Art Friday, today is my 47th birthday. So I'm going to do whatever I darn well please. (I know, I know... I do that every Friday. Old habits die hard.)

What pleases me is getting an early start on our traditional look back at the year's best acquisitions. This way, we can spread the retrospective goodness over two consecutive Comic Art Fridays, and bask in the reflected glow of my favorite new pieces of 2008 for a week longer.

In the words of the late Heath Ledger: And here... we... go!

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Heroes Division:
"Force of Gravity" — pencils by Sal Velluto, inks by Bob Almond
Captain Gravity and Gravity

Sal and Bob, the longtime artistic team on Marvel's Black Panther, created two incredible additions to my Common Elements theme gallery in 2008. I loved the whimsy of Sal's design in this one, which featured another character from the Sal and Bob catalog — Penny-Farthing's Captain Gravity.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Heroines Division:
"Val to the Third Power" — pencils by Val Semeiks
Valkyrie (from Airboy) and Valkyrie (from The Defenders)

Val Semeiks's impeccable storytelling slams a home run with this concept, which was tailor-made (well, it would be, if I were a tailor) for him. Beautifully designed, and deftly drawn.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Co-Ed Division (tie):
"Celestial Domes" — pencils by Steve Carr, inks by Joe Rubinstein
Moondragon and the Martian Manhunter

As was the case last year, I had a tough time deciding this category. Thus, for the second year in a row, I split the difference to honor two outstanding artworks. The early leader here was this dazzling scenario imagined by Steve Carr, then splendidly finished by Joe Rubinstein.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Co-Ed Division (tie):
"Identity Theft" — pencils and inks by Mike Vosburg
Starfire and Steel

And then came this stellar entry from Bronze Age veteran Mike Vosburg. Mike pairs his creation Starfire with her fellow overlooked DC non-star, Steel. Mike still draws with the same muscular energy that made those '70s comics so much fun.

Favorite Storm:
Aaron Lopresti (pencils and inks)

Wonder Woman artist Lopresti rocked this image of the lightning-commanding X-Man at WonderCon back in February. Aaron really hustled to complete this one before the end of the day on Saturday.

Favorite Supergirl:
Matthew Clark (pencils)

Matthew is one of the most underappreciated talents in the comics industry. His name doesn't often surface when fans call out their current favorites. But man, oh man, can this guy sling a pencil.

Favorite Mary Marvel:
David Williams (mixed media)

David is perhaps best known for drawing "kids' comics" for the all-ages Marvel Adventures line. His work brims with boundless joy, clever design, and a sly sense of humor. All three qualities sparkle in this WonderCon commission.

Favorite Wonder Woman:
Daniel B. Veesenmeyer (pencils)

"DVeese" helped inaugurate my new Bombshells! theme gallery (about which, more next Friday) this year with several nicely rendered pieces. Here, he recalls the original appearance of the Amazing Amazon in classic nose art style.

Favorite Beauties With Blades:
Phil Noto (pencils and inks)

Alex Niño (pencils and inks)

Two more stunning components of a truly memorable WonderCon haul.

Next Friday, we'll review the best of Bombshells!, and announce our 2008 Artist of the Year.

If you want to send me a piece or two of original comic art for my birthday, I'll gladly accept it, even if it arrives later. Or you could drive over, hand me the art in person, and then take me out to birthday lunch. I promise not to order the lobster.

(No, I don't.)

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Now get off my lawn.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bettie turns the final Page

Back in March, we had the sad duty of reporting the death of artist Dave Stevens, creator of The Rocketeer.

In that post, we observed that Stevens's fame will be forever entwined with that of 1950s pinup queen Bettie Page, whom Stevens used as the prototype for the Rocketeer's girlfriend Betty (note the different yet referential spelling). Stevens's work revived interest in the largely forgotten cult star, returning her to the spotlight after decades of anonymity.

Now, sadly, Stevens's muse has followed him into the next life.

Bettie Page

Bettie Page suffered a heart attack last week, leaving her comatose in a Los Angeles hospital. After having been kept on life support for several days, she passed away earlier today.

Ms. Page made her fame as one of the first models to transition from the underground pornography scene of the '50s into something approaching mainstream media. She was one of Playboy's earliest centerfolds, appearing in the January 1955 issue (one month before actress Jayne Mansfield).

Prior to her debut in Hugh Hefner's bunny rag, Bettie appeared in hundreds of ribald magazines, postcards, and non-explicit short films, many with sadomasochistic or bondage themes. She also posed for a series of pictures by Bunny Yeager, one of the first female pinup photographers. It was Yeager who brought Bettie to Hefner's attention. Thanks to her increased exposure (no pun intended), Bettie rapidly became the most popular pinup model in America.

In the late '50s, after her mentor Irving Klaw was prosecuted for distributing pornography through the mail, Bettie underwent a religious conversion and retired from modeling. She later attended several Bible colleges, and reportedly did some charitable and missionary work. She remained in relative seclusion until Dave Stevens, and other artists including Greg Theakston and Jim Silke, introduced the sunny-faced brunette to a new legion of fans. A 2005 film biography, The Notorious Bettie Page, featured Gretchen Mol in the title role.

It's unfortunate that when many people think of Bettie Page, their minds will automatically snap to the word "pornography." Unlike the porn stars of today, Bettie never performed sexual acts of any kind in front of a camera — unless one considers nudity itself a sexual act. Ironically, I first became aware of Ms. Page's career when, as a broadcast journalism student at San Francisco State University in the early 1980s, I wrote a research paper on the adult film industry.

Despite this connection, I, like many of her modern-day fans, really developed an interest in Bettie only after her image began to appear in Rocketeer comic books. My comic art collection contains — at least, so far — only one Bettie-inspired drawing: this Common Elements piece by Greg LaRocque, starring Phantom Lady and the Phantom Stranger. You'll notice that Greg's depiction of Phantom Lady bears a striking resemblance to a certain dark-tressed pinup idol.

Bettie Page declined most requests from photographers in her waning years. She preferred to be remembered as she was in her heyday.

I don't think there's any question but that she will be.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Six degrees of me

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

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

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

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

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

It's a small world after all.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Drinking the Kool-Aid

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

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

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

History makes mistakes like that sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least the Kool-Aid company recovered.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dolemite has left the scene

By way of my friend The Real Sam Johnson — the undisputed king of bloggers in Savannah, GA — comes the sad news of the death of comedian, actor, and entertainment personality Rudy Ray Moore.

That name might not trip any bells for those of you too young to have experienced the swinging '70s, but readers of a certain age (and those, to be frank, who have the complexion to make the connection) will recall Moore, first as one of the premier purveyors of what we called "party records" back in the day, and then as the lead in several blaxploitation flicks, most notably playing the outrageous pimp-slash-action hero known as Dolemite.

Moore was, first and foremost, a stand-up comic and raconteur who worked the so-called "chitlin circuit" in the 1960s. Like many African-American comics of that era, he produced inexpensive record albums featuring his down-and-dirty, profanity-and-graphic-sexuality-laden routines, targeted specifically at black audiences. (Although I've been surprised over the years to discover how many of my Caucasian acquaintances also grew up listening — mostly in secret — to these "party records," so dubbed because people often played them as entertainment at adult gatherings.) Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Pigmeat Markham, and ventriloquist Willie Tyler were among the leading practitioners of the genre.

As the blaxploitation boom was sweeping the film industry, propelled by such hit movies as Shaft and Superfly, Moore began looking for a way to cash in. His ticket into cinematic legend was Dolemite, a character that had long been a feature of Moore's stand-up act.

The on-screen Dolemite was a flamboyant cross between every stereotypical cliché about urban pimps and a hard-charging street fighter of the kind then being portrayed by Jim Kelly, Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, and other blaxploitation stars. (Think Huggy Bear, with an R-rated vocabulary.) When the 1975 film Dolemite became a cult hit, Moore reprised the character in The Human Tornado the following year. In 1978, Moore unleashed his other signature character, Petey Wheatstraw, the devil's son-in-law. (I kid you not.)

Moore's movies, made on budgets that you could probably scrape together from loose change you found beneath your sofa cushions, were not high cinematic art. Indeed, it's fair to say they're the kind of flicks that Ed Wood might have made if he had been a black comic in the 1970s. But the films connected with their intended audience, so enduringly that Moore and his Dolemite persona evolved into hip-hop icons, appearing on several popular rap recordings and in numerous videos.

They definitely don't make 'em like Rudy Ray any Moore.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Comic Art Friday? I can't help myself

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of Levi Stubbs, lead vocalist of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members, the Four Tops.

Stubbs, whose inimitable baritone propelled such tracks as "Baby, I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "Reach Out, I'll Be There", "It's the Same Old Song," and my all-time favorite Tops classic, "Standing in the Shadows of Love," died earlier today after nearly a decade of failing health. He was 72.

In addition to his contributions to American popular music, Stubbs will be remembered by film fanatics as the voice of Audrey II, the anthropomorphic man-eating plant in the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. If you were going to hire someone to belt out a tune entitled "I'm a Mean Green Mother From Outer Space," I can't think of anyone better than the bombastic Stubbs. Neither, apparently, could the producers of the movie.

Speaking of bombastic, here's a recent entry in my "Bombshells!" commission series. The beauty playing "Peek-A-Boo!" with danger is Miss Masque. The talent behind the pencil is pinup artist Anthony Carpenter.

Miss Masque debuted in Exciting Comics #51, published in September 1946 by Nedor Comics (later known as Standard Comics). Nedor, which started out in the pulp magazine field before branching into comics, was the brainchild of entrepreneur Ned Pines, who also founded the paperback original book imprint Popular Library. If you read genre fiction extensively anytime between the 1940s and the early 1980s, you probably perused some Popular Library titles.

Back to Miss Masque: Vivacious socialite Diana Adams donned a short, bright red dress, a rakish fedora, and a black domino mask (hence her code name — I guess 1946 was a mite early to call herself "Miss Miniskirt") to battle evildoers. With no superpowers to call upon, Miss Masque relied upon good old-fashioned firepower in the form of twin .45s to dispatch the bad guys.

During her three-year run, Miss Masque proved to be one of Nedor's more popular characters, making frequent cover appearances in artworks by such luminaries as Frank Frazetta and Alex Schomburg. Her enduring popularity has resulted in several revivals in recent years, most notably in AC Comics' Femforce, America's Best Comics' Tom Strong and Terra Obscura, and the current Project Superpowers series, created by writer Jim Kreuger and artist Alex Ross for Dynamite Entertainment. (She's known as "Masquerade" in the latter book.)

Artist Anthony Carpenter is one of the most unique stylists represented in my collection. Anthony's deft tonal pencil technique creates a spectacular sense of warmth and depth, and his whimsical, nostalgic sensibility made him an ideal choice to add to my "Bombshells!" series.

In addition to retro-flavored pinup art, often with a kitschy-cool "tiki" or "jungle girl" theme, Anthony specializes in pastiches of 1960s genre film posters. His creations in each of these areas embodies a singular, charming imagination unlike any other artist working today. If you like Anthony's stuff, I recommend a tour of his Comic Art Fans gallery or his Sketchville! blog.

I think even Levi Stubbs would have enjoyed Anthony's first contribution to my Common Elements commission series, in which Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, and Saturn Girl from the Legion of Super-Heroes find themselves facing a "mean, green mother from outer space." Could this be a cousin of Audrey II?

Time to reminisce with a few Four Tops sides. You might consider doing likewise, if you have any soul.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008


This won't elicit much play beyond my immediate vicinity, but what the hey... I can be provincial when I choose to be.

The man who built much of my town died today.

Jimmie Rogers was an up-and-coming real estate salesman back in the early 1960s when he persuaded the namesake family on whose one-time seed farm the city of Rohnert Park now stands to hire him as their representative. Rogers parlayed that position — and a legendary silver tongue — into a lucrative political and development career.

Rogers's talent for negotiation led to the creation of most of the residential tracts in town, including the one where I live. He was also responsible for the local community center, golf course, numerous commercial projects, and a host of parks and schools. Rogers served for nearly a decade on the city council, and when his development connections drove him out of the political arena, he continued to control the council through his proxies for decades afterward.

Having lived in Rohnert Park for most of the past 30 years, I've heard plenty of stories about Jimmie Rogers, although I met him in person only once, when I was still in high school. I don't know how many of the stories are 100% true.

Without question, Rogers cut a colorful figure around town. He liked to dress like an extra from Urban Cowboy. His hands wormed their way into plenty of pockets and his fingers probed a lot of pies. Where there were palms to be greased, Rogers was the one who gave and got the grease. Where deals were being hammered out in smoke-filled back rooms, Rogers did most of the puffing.

Rogers was frequently accused of playing fast and loose with the legalities of city business, to the point that the FBI took a hard look at him on at least one occasion. But he had as many fans as he had detractors — a friend of mine in the real estate business can't say enough good about the guy.

This much I do know...

If it weren't for Jimmie Rogers, this would be a very different community. And I wouldn't be typing under this roof.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Behind blue eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cry, the beloved Sony

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

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

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

Memorial services are pending.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The grapevine is silent

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

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

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

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

And that's the name of that tune.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

In a world without the Movie Trailer Guy...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This post is not yet rated.)

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Let's go to Mars!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Making love in a Subaru

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

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

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

All together now: Oooooooooooh. Aaaaaaaaaaaah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

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

Irony doesn't get more bitter than this.

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

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

Freeman was 47.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lord Bowler's final frame

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

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

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

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

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

Hope you found the coming thing, Lord Bowler.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bobby Murcer (1946-2008)

I note in this evening's news that Bobby Murcer has passed away from a brain tumor.

To most baseball fans, Murcer was most closely associated with the New York Yankees, first as a player, then as a broadcaster for more than 20 years. For me, however, Murcer was part of my earliest experience as a San Francisco Giants fan.

Bobby Murcer played two years for the Giants -- the 1975 and 1976 seasons, which (purely coincidentally) happened to be the first two seasons that I followed the Giants on a regular basis.

Murcer, who came to the Giants after four All-Star seasons in New York, was still a pretty good player when he arrived at Candlestick Park. In fact, Murcer was the Giants' representative in the '75 All-Star game. He never really seemed to catch on, though, with Bay Area fans, who still thought of him mostly as a Yankee. (Murcer also had the misfortune to have been received in exchange for the popular Bobby Bonds.)

Despite two pretty good seasons wearing orange and black -- he was the Giants' MVP in 1976, when he hit 23 home runs -- not too many fans here mourned when Murcer took flight for the greener pastures of Wrigley Field, having been traded for second baseman Bill Madlock.

Ironically, the player whose career is most similar statistically to Bobby Murcer's is a guy who will long be thought of as a Giant -- Dusty Baker, who played a single season in the twilight of his career with San Francisco, and later returned to the club as a longtime coach and manager.

Murcer posted a lifetime batting average of .277, with 252 home runs and 1,043 RBI in 17 major league seasons. He led the American League in slugging percentage in 1971, and won a Gold Glove the following year.

So long, Bobby. Remember to hit 'em where they ain't.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

The class clown goes down

This paean to the late, legendary George Carlin will not include any words that you can't say on television.

(Although, to be accurate, two of Carlin's infamous Seven Words are now spoken on television with relative frequency, and as august a personality as Jane Fonda pitched out the four-letter word beginning with "C" on the Today Show just a few months ago.)

The immediate irony of the news about George Carlin's death (Carlin would mock me from the grave for using a euphemism like "passing") was that Cranky George videotaped his final HBO comedy special, It's Bad for Ya, here in Santa Rosa the first weekend in March. Even though the show was being taped locally, I settled for the live cablecast, since I already pay for the subscription. Now, I'm a little sad that I didn't go and pay homage to the great humorist while he was still with us.

I first became hooked on Carlin's comedy in my junior high school days. I still have my original vinyl copies of all of his classic albums from the '70s — Class Clown; FM & AM; Occupation: Foole; Toledo Window Box; An Evening with Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo; On the Road; plus 1981's A Place for My Stuff. Even now, I can rattle off many of those outrageous routines and rants verbatim. (I tend to bowdlerize them a trifle when I repeat them, but still.)

Carlin is often mentioned in the same breath with such fellow comics as Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, and Carlin's contemporary Richard Pryor because they all employed an abundance of profanity and risque subject matter. That is, in my view, a shallow evaluation of all four performers. Foxx's bawdy routines were "inside baseball," targeted at a specific audience that had few resources for uncensored comedy. Pryor used scatological language as a framework for sociopolitical commentary — as his two network television series demonstrated (especially the award-winning Pryor's Place, a Saturday morning kid's show), Pryor could be equally effective when he wasn't working blue. Bruce — who, in my plain-spoken opinion, wasn't the comedic equal of the others, despite his reputation as an innovator — threw out F-bombs as a way of needling the Establishment and giving voice his internal demons.

Carlin, though, liked to play with language. Profanities were his Lincoln logs, his Legos, his alphabet blocks. His "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" riff (from Class Clown), and its sequel, "Filthy Words" (from Occupation: Foole), were less about the words themselves than the concepts and mores that cause us to judge certain words as socially acceptable while deeming others taboo. A lot of Carlin's comedy was like that — a window into the mind of a man who thought a lot about why the world was the way it was, then found funny ways to talk about it. He was as brilliant an observational humorist as Mark Twain and Will Rogers were in their eras. As a stand-up comedian, he was second only to the nonpareil Pryor.

For me, George lost some of his mojo once he qualified for AARP membership. From the early '80s on, Carlin embraced his newfound persona as the angry old man a mite too fully, and his rancorous bitterness (especially on the topics of religion and politics) often overwhelmed the charming, albeit scathing, bemusement that marked his prime years.

That said, whenever he allowed himself to transcend his curmudgeonly stage character and simply wax poetic about the absurdities of modern life, Carlin was hilarious to the end. I had tears rolling down my cheeks at one point during his final special.

Today, I might shed one or two more, realizing that old George is gone.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Dance like an Egyptian

As the late, great Jim McKay might have said...

"What in The Wide World of Sports happened to my week?"

All of a sudden, it's another Comic Art Friday, and I haven't posted one doggoned thing since last Friday.

I'm falling down on my blogging responsibilities. It's a crying shame.

Oh, well. I'll do better next week.

Moving on...

Without question, nostalgia plays an essential role in comic art collecting. I know every few, if indeed any, collectors in the hobby who weren't avid comic book readers in their youth. (I know plenty of comic art collectors who are not comic readers today, which says more about the present state of the mainstream comics industry than almost anything else I can name.)

As we've seen on the two most recent Comic Art Fridays, my nostalgia for my comic-geek childhood and my fond recollections of other aspects of popular culture that I experienced during my formative years frequently intersect in my art collection.

Take, for example, my Isis gallery.

I love the classic Saturday morning TV show The Secrets of Isis — produced by Filmation, and starring the ineffably sublime JoAnna Cameron in the title role. The Secrets of Isis is the only television series for which I own all of the episodes on DVD. (And yes, I actually break down and watch a couple of eps whenever the Isis jones overtakes me.)

Isis's September 1975 premiere made her the first superheroine in TV history to headline her own weekly series — Wonder Woman debuted two months later; The Bionic Woman, the following January. You know I'm all about the superheroines. One might even say that I have a superheroine addiction.

Which creates the perfect segue into today's featured artwork.

The pencil art of Mike Vosburg graced seven of the eight issues of the Isis comic book, which DC Comics published during the TV show's tenure (1976-77). Mike has also drawn dozens of other properties during his 35-year career in comics, most notably DC's Starfire (which Mike co-created) and Marvel's She-Hulk and G.I. Joe. These days, in addition to his various illustrating projects, Mike is much sought after as a storyboard artist for motion pictures and television. He storyboarded the first film in the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and is currently at work on the third film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I had the opportunity to meet Mike at WonderCon back in February, and found him a most congenial gentleman. We even talked a bit about Isis — how could we not? Some months later, I received an e-mail from a fellow comic art collector who's helping Mike promote his new limited-edition sketchbook — cleverly titled Heroine Addiction (now you get the connection) — and sell the original artwork featured in the book. Mike's friend, knowing my passion for all things Isis, thought I might like to own the Isis drawing Mike created for Heroine Addiction. Again, how could I not?

Mike even personalized the art for me, and included a gratis copy of his sketchbook. Isis and her dancing partners (Mike's a cat fancier, hence Isis's feline companion) are now proudly hanging on my office wall, even as I type.

If you'd like to view more of Mike Vosburg's work, and perhaps score a little Heroine Addiction for yourself, check out his Web site. You can tell Mike your Uncle Swan sent you.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

More blogging next week. Scout's honor.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Now go do that voodoo that you do so well

At the risk of alienating SSTOL regular Scott, who was just chiding me about all the talk of death around here...

The great Harvey Korman has passed on.

It would be impossible to discuss Harvey Korman's contributions to comedy without starting with The Carol Burnett Show, where he shone as the leading sketch comic in Burnett's repertory company. Korman paired especially well with Tim Conway — almost every week, a sketch on the Burnett show would devolve into barely restrained hilarity as the two veteran comedians cracked one another up in front of a live audience. Korman won four Emmys — and was nominated for an additional three — for his work on Carol Burnett.

For me, though, Korman will live forever as Hedy Lamarr — "That's HEDLEY!" — okay, Hedley Lamarr, the scheming villain of Mel Brooks's nonpareil Western spoof, Blazing Saddles. Korman steals pretty much every scene in which he appears, breathing joy into his over-the-top portrayal of a conniving government official hell-bent on stealing a tiny frontier hamlet out from under its residents so that he can make a killing building a railroad through the site.

As Lamarr, Korman is at turns pompous, vain, agitated, simpering, serpentine, and pure evil, but he is never not funny, not for even a millisecond of screen time. It's not the kind of acting that wins Academy Award nominations — despite Korman's plea for same during the film's denouement — but I guarantee that no one who's ever seen Blazing Saddles can hear the name "Hedy Lamarr" without hearing Korman's exasperated "That's HEDLEY!" from deep within the cerebral cortex.

Korman delivered numerous other hysterical performances, especially in Brooks-directed films. He was a masochistic psychiatrist in High Anxiety; a slick French politician, the Count de Monet, in History of the World, Part I; an asylum superintendent who becomes a reluctant vampire hunter in Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Given that Blazing Saddles is my favorite cinematic comedy, and one of my five favorite movies of any genre, it's his role in that film that will keep Harvey Korman fondly etched in my memories.

Rest in peace, Hedy Lamarr.

"That's HEDLEY!"

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Whistle stop

The name Earle Hagen may not ring a bell when first you hear it. But if you were watching television in the 1960s and '70s — or if you're a fan of TV Land or Nick at Nite — you're familiar with his work.

The composer of numerous TV theme songs and scores, Hagen died yesterday at the age of 88.

Hagen's theme music résumé reads like a list of Nielsen ratings all-stars from back in the day: I Spy (for which Hagen won an Emmy), That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mod Squad, Eight is Enough, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., and most memorably, The Andy Griffith Show, which featured Hagen whistling a happy tune as Andy and Opie head off to the ol' fishin' hole.

In addition to his extensive television work — it's estimated that his music appears in more than 3,000 episodes — Hagen also wrote scores for dozens of motion pictures, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He and cowriter Lionel Newman were nominated for an Academy Award in 1961 for scoring another Marilyn Monroe classic, Let's Make Love.

Even if he had never composed a note for the screen, either large or small, Hagen's place in musical history was secured when he wrote (with bandleader Ray Noble) the jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne" in 1939. Practically every jazz musician active in the past seven decades has covered Hagen's soulful, Ellingtonesque riff.

Earle Hagen's passing gets me to thinking...

Whatever happened to TV theme songs?

At one time, you couldn't have a successful TV show without a catchy theme. Sometimes, the theme music was infinitely better than the show it introduced. Everyone remembers Henry Mancini's theme from the '50s detective drama Peter Gunn, which still pops up in movie and TV show soundtracks to this day. Anyone recall the show itself? That's what I thought. (Another example: T.H.E. Cat, an otherwise forgettable mid-'60s show starring Robert Loggia as a reformed — yet conveniently named — cat burglar, had a wicked cool jazz theme by Lalo Schifrin that I can hear reverberating in my skull even now.)

When I was but a wee lad, I used to collect TV themes on my little reel-to-reel tape recorder — you whippersnappers will have to look that one up — and a cheap microphone I would hold in front of the speaker of our Zenith console set. In between songs, I'd throw in introductory patter in the mold of the AM disc jockeys I idolized — Casey Kasem and Wolfman Jack. (Look, I was an only child in a military family that moved every year or two. I learned self-entertainment skills early in life.) Who knew then that TV theme songs would one day go the way of... well... reel-to-reel audio tape?

Of course, there's a reason for the decline in the art of TV themes: It's called money. Those precious 15 or 30 seconds that would otherwise be wasted on a throwaway musical trifle can be sold to the highest-bidding advertiser, instead of offering attention-deficient viewers an opportunity to grab a snack or relieve themselves. When TV shows use themes these days, they're usually established pop hits (the CSI franchise's obsession with classics by The Who, to cite but three), not custom ditties designed to establish the program's unique mood.

Earle Hagen may have died only yesterday, but, sad to tell, the TV theme songs he loved died long before.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Say "Good night," Dick

Dick Martin, the goofier half of the '60s comedy team Rowan and Martin, has said his last "Good night, Dick."

For those of you too young to remember the Summer of Love, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In broke many of television's most hallowed taboos when it debuted on NBC in January 1968.

Laugh-In was the first primetime network series to leap full-bore into the world of cutting-edge political humor and sexual double entendre, and it did it all with a loosey-goosey formlessness that owed more to the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and psychedelia than any traditional variety or comedy program that preceded it.

At the center of the insanity stood straight man Dan Rowan and his happy-go-lucky foil Dick Martin, standing about looking dapper in their tuxedos, tossing off urbane one-liners while Goldie Hawn gyrated in a bikini.

Those were the days.

After Laugh-In played out the string in the early '70s, Rowan and Martin went their separate ways. Dick Martin showed up frequently as a celebrity panelist on game shows like Hollywood Squares and Match Game — TV programs that capitalized on the new openness in bawdy humor that Laugh-In pioneered.

At the same time, Martin was building a second, less visible but no less creative, career behind the camera as a director. He helmed dozens of episodes of situation comedies, from Newhart to Sledge Hammer! and everything in between.

Early in Laugh-In's run, Rowan and Martin seized their blossoming fame and rushed out a theatrical comedy called The Maltese Bippy (after one of the innumerable catchphrases Laugh-In spawned, "You bet your sweet bippy"). Modeled on the Universal Studios horror-comedies of Abbott and Costello, the film featured Dan and Dick matching half-wits with vampires and werewolves, and chasing busty young women. (Martin eventually caught one — he married former Playboy centerfold Dolly Read.) I remember sitting with friends in the base theater at Iraklion Air Station on the Greek island of Crete one Saturday afternoon, watching the duo cavort.

Fans will recall that at the conclusion of every Laugh-In episode, Rowan (who died of cancer in 1987) would turn to his partner — who, in typical fashion, had usually just spouted some inane commentary — and utter the magic words, "Say 'Good night,' Dick." To which Martin would respond, grinning with daffy glee into the camera, "Good night, Dick."

Good night, Dick.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

R.I.P., Rory Root

I'm saddened to hear about the sudden passing of comics retailer Rory Root earlier today.

Rory was the owner of Comic Relief, an exceptional comics shop in Berkeley. I had occasion to drop in at Rory's store a few times over the years, and was always impressed with both the merchandise selection and the congenial staff.

My more frequent interactions with Comic Relief, though, came at local comic conventions. A browse at Rory's beautifully merchandised booth was always an essential part of my con experience.

As previously mentioned in this space, this past February at WonderCon, Comic Relief was the only retailer selling copies of Mark Evanier's eagerly anticipated new book, Kirby: King of Comics, which had been published that very week. Through what I understand were herculean efforts on his part, Rory managed to score 80 copies of Mark's book, and arranged with Mark to sign the book for those who purchased it.

I'm thrilled to own one of those 80 copies. Rory personally dug it out of the shipping box in order to sell it to me, whereupon Mark graciously affixed his autograph to the flyleaf. Kirby's favorite inker, Mike Royer, likewise signed my book as we were waiting together to attend a panel discussion about the book.

I'll cherish my autographed copy of Kirby: King of Comics always... and I won't forget the gentle bear of a guy who made it possible for me to own it.

My thoughts and prayers are with Rory's family, friends, and staff.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Crazy from the heat

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of Will Elder, one of the founding artists of MAD Magazine, who passed away this week at the age of 86.

Elder's manic cartooning and incredibly detailed panels helped set the tone for generations of MAD artists to follow. After departing MAD, Elder and writer-artist Harvey Kurtzman created the popular Little Annie Fanny comic strip for Playboy. (Not that I would know anything about that...)

Our sincere condolences to Mr. Elder's family and fans.

Looking at SSTOL this morning, I realize that I have been — as my daughter KM would put it — a total slack-job about posting this week. It's not that I haven't had anything to write about. For one thing, the television upfronts took place this week, when the various broadcast networks unveil their schedules for the fall season. I'll get to our customary overviews next week.

This week, it's just been too dad-blamed hot.

When the mercury tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as it has here in Wine Country each of the past two days, my creative focus melts.

If only I had the power to alter the weather... my favorite Marvel mutant Ororo Munroe, code name Storm.

Storm could lower the temperature to a balmy and tolerable 78 degrees with a simple wave of her hand.

With a thought, Storm could summon a gentle, cooling breeze to waft away the oppressive heat.

Man, I wish Storm was here.

Because it sure is hot.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Death by Frigidaire

I nearly dropped my cup of Butter Pecan when I read this...

Irv Robbins, cofounder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chain
, has departed for that giant freezer in the sky.

Robbins launched his tongue-chilling empire in 1945, when he opened his first ice cream parlor in Glendale, California. A few years later, he teamed up with his brother-in-law Burton Baskin to start the company that bears their names. (They flipped a coin to determine whose name came first.)

Baskin-Robbins quickly became the pioneering frozen dessert franchise operation, paving the way for franchising efforts in other areas of fast-food service. That "golden arches" thing, to name but one.

When his partner Baskin died in 1967, Robbins sold the company to United Fruit Co., although he continued on the payroll for another decade or so. These days, Baskin-Robbins belongs to the parent corporation of Dunkin' Donuts — is that a match made in hypoglycemic heaven, or what? — and boasts more than 5,800 shops internationally.

Although Baskin-Robbins' trademark is "31 Flavors," they've offered over a thousand varieties of ice cream at one time or another, from the perennial vanilla and chocolate to seasonal specialties (for example, our household favorite, Baseball Nut, a vanilla-raspberry-cashew concoction that resurfaces every spring) to such promotional gimmicks as Shrek'd Out Chocolate Mint and Casper's Red, White and Boo.

Here's a sweet irony: Robbins's son John, the author of such books as Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution, and Healthy at 100, is one of the world's most prominent advocates of veganism and natural, plant-based foods.

That's right, Junior: Dad paid for three squares a day, plus clothing, shelter, and college education, by selling frozen sugar and butterfat. And the man lived to be 90. Meanwhile, you're jumping on camera with Morgan Spurlock to bad-mouth your father's legacy.

King Lear said it best: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"

I'll raise a double scoop of Nutty Coconut to that.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

In the still of the night

I just read, over at John Neal's A Cappella News, that Ronnie I has passed on.

Ronnie I (his last name was Italiano, but I never heard anyone refer to him as anything but Ronnie I) was a legend in a cappella music circles as the world's leading proponent of old-school, 1950s-style R&B vocal harmony — the kind of music you might call doo-wop.

You didn't call it that in front of Ronnie I.

Ronnie I didn't just love vocal harmony, he actively promoted it with his heart and soul. He owned a record store in New Jersey called Clifton Music, where he sold both old and new vocal harmony recordings. Clifton Music also recorded artists who might otherwise have remained unknown and unheralded, and provided an outlet for aficionados of the style to hear them. For many years, Ronnie hosted radio shows featuring his beloved music on several New York area stations. He founded the United in Group Harmony Association (UGHA), an organization joining vintage-style vocal groups and their fans. Ronnie I and UGHA hosted frequent concerts that brought these musicians together.

I never met Ronnie I, but from all the stories I heard about him from within the a cappella community, I felt as though I knew him. He had a reputation for being crusty, hard-nosed, and single-minded. But no one doubted his passion for the music he championed.

Back in the '90s, Ronnie I was the director of the New York regional of the Harmony Sweepstakes, the national a cappella championship. If I recall correctly, he judged the finals, which are held at the Marin Civic Center on the first Saturday in May, on at least one occasion. (KJ and I had a 14-year streak of attending the finals broken two years ago, when she was too ill to go. I missed last year, and will miss again next Saturday, because my chorus now schedules its annual retreat on that weekend.)

My a cappella library boasts at least a couple of Clifton Music CDs, including a magnificent recording by a long-defunct quintet called Charm, whom Ronnie I considered one of the greatest R&B vocal groups in the history of the style. I'll have to dig that one out and give it a spin in Ronnie's memory.

Ronnie I succumbed following a long fight with liver cancer. His legacy will live on... because the music he loved will never die.

On a cheerier note, I understand from John Neal's blog that Sony Entertainment — my old friends via Jeopardy! — just purchased the rights to develop a reality show centered around the Harmony Sweepstakes, for which John — who has owned the Sweeps for the past dozen years or so — will be serving as a consultant. Congratulations, John!

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Poker's candle in the wind

Brandi Rose Hawbaker, the Britney Spears of poker, has folded her hand. Permanently.

She was only 26 years old.

Or somewhere in that vicinity.

The tragic act occurred more than a week ago, apparently, but news is only now getting around on the poker blog circuit. Brandi's suicide draws the curtain on a roller-coaster ride that seemed bizarre and outlandish even within a milieu that attracts — and thrives on — the bizarre and outlandish.

Like most poker aficionados, I first became aware of Brandi when she led the field for the first several days of Festa al Lago V, a 2006 World Poker Tour event. Although she ended up finishing a respectable 35th in the tournament (two places ahead of Jennifer Harman, widely considered the best female poker player in the world), Brandi's run as chip leader — coupled with her photogenic appeal and exhibitionist personality — sealed her date with demi-celebrity.

Attractive young women with actual talent come along in professional poker about as often as vegans dine at the Outback Steakhouse, so Brandi's advent on the scene set testosterone-fueled tongues wagging across the Internet. Sad to tell, Brandi's newfound fame came packaged with tales of self-destructive and antisocial behavior that rivaled those of Hollywood's tabloid darlings. These stories spawned persistent whispers about untreated mental illness, supported by online testimony from people close to Brandi.

The whispers, it seems, spoke at least a modicum of truth.

Neil Young once sang, "It's better to burn out than it is to rust." I'm not certain that I agree with him. Brandi Hawbaker, whether by conscious choice or karmic twist, apparently did.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore"

Sad news for the Famous Monsters of Filmland crowd: Hazel Court has died.

Yes, for real this time.

Hazel Court was an English actress who enjoyed a lengthy, if largely unspectacular, career in motion pictures and television. In the early 1950s, Court discovered her true calling, acting in low-budget horror films. She appeared as the female half of a young couple who move into a haunted house in 1952's Ghost Ship. This led to her legendary turn in the 1954 classic Devil Girl from Mars — Court played the ingenue, not the title character, in case you were confused. She was again cast as the innocent young heroine in Hammer Films' seminal The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, and a scream-screen star was born.

In the early 1960s, Court costarred in several films produced by Roger Corman's American International Pictures, based on the twisted works of Edgar Allan Poe: The Premature Burial, in which Court played the duplicitous lover of scholarly Ray Milland; The Raven, which paired Court with a callow Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) opposite terror titans Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Peter Lorre; and The Masque of the Red Death, perhaps Corman's most memorably Poe-etic opus, and almost certainly the best picture in Court's filmography.

Although she wasn't, to be brutally frank, an accomplished thespian, Court was attractive in that stereotypically wan, upper-crust English sort of way. Her porcelain beauty — and impressive displays of quivering cleavage — lent a certain austere charm to the films in which she starred. Without question, her performances garnered her a minuscule yet dedicated coterie of devotees, as this comprehensive fansite demonstrates.

Some years ago, when I was writing reviews for DVD Verdict, I brandished my critical pencil at an MGM double-feature disk showcasing The Premature Burial and The Masque of the Red Death. You can check out my review of these two Roger Corman masterworks (*ahem*) here.

In an odd touch of irony, just as I sat down to memorialize Ms. Court this afternoon, this T-shirt arrived in my mailbox, courtesy of the good folks at Woot!

I can't imagine a more fitting tribute.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

To know her is to fear her!

When last we convened for Comic Art Friday, we memorialized the passing of veteran comic book artist Jim Mooney, who left us on March 30.

I noted in that post Mooney's close association with one of my all-time favorite superheroines, Ms. Marvel. Thanks to one of those mental blocks that occur with alarming frequency in those of a certain age (ahem...), however, I neglected to mention that "Gentleman Jim" was one of the artistic cocreators of another of those great '70s heroines that I love so much: Jessica Drew, the original Spider-Woman.

Like many female characters of the Silver and Bronze Ages of comics, Spider-Woman existed primarily to establish a trademark on a distaff version of a popular male hero (i.e., Supergirl, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk). Of course, once you've created such a knock-off character, you actually have to publish her in order for the trademark protection to take effect.

Thus, Marvel Comics cranked out 50 issues of Spider-Woman's adventures, to resounding ennui from the comics-reading public. The company even produced a short-lived (16 episodes, aired in the fall of 1979) animated TV series recounting the exploits of the Arachnid Adventuress. Again, the mass audience remained unmoved. (Trivia: In the cartoon, Spider-Woman's voice was supplied by the legendary Joan Van Ark of Knots Landing fame, who today sports one of the most horrific plastic surgery visages known to humankind.)

All of which is too bad, really. Not only did Spider-Woman evolve into an intriguing character — despite the superficial thematic similarity, she really isn't very much like Spider-Man at all — but Jessica's eventual fading from the Marvel Universe in the early '80s spawned an opportunity for a new and improved Spider-Woman, Julia Carpenter, to appear.

The rationale for Julia's creation was even more shallow than Jessica's — Marvel wanted to trademark, in feminine form, the black-and-white costume Spider-Man acquired during the 1984 mega-event Secret Wars. Her single-mother-as-superhero backstory, however, was novel for its time, and added a welcome layer of emotional realism to the character.

Here's Julia in action, alongside the Justice Society's Mr. Terrific, in a Common Elements commission by Fables artist Lan Medina.

These days, the original Spider-Woman is back with a vengeance. Jessica's a prominent character in the current New Avengers title written by Brian Michael Bendis, and figures to play a major role in Marvel's latest crossover epic, Secret Invasion.

It's good to have her hanging around the Marvel Universe again.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Go down, Moses

Now that the man has shuffled off this mortal coil, I can admit this:

I'm a huge Charlton Heston fan.

Not the rhetoric-spewing, rifle-waving reactionary Heston of his later years in public life. And not even so much the more rational, compassionate Heston of earlier times, who marched alongside Dr. King and was an ardent, vocal supporter of civil rights long before it was socially acceptable. Although I did kind of admire that guy.

No, I mean the Heston of all of those classic Hollywood films. The man who stepped in front of a camera with those chiseled features, that piercing gaze, and that booming baritone, and wrestled the silver screen to the ground.

I loved that Charlton Heston.

The man had such intense, compelling presence that he, with his blond-haired, blue-eyed self, could play an endless string of Hebrews (Moses in The Ten Commandments; Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur; John the Baptist in The Grestest Story Ever Told), Latins (Mexican narco agent Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil; Spanish conqueror Rodrigo Diaz in El Cid), and Italians (Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy; Marc Antony in both the 1970 edition of Julius Caesar and the Heston-directed Antony and Cleopatra in 1972), and make you believe in them.

Heston's charisma was so palpable that he could remain concrete and genuine in the midst of the most embarrassingly hackneyed disaster film (Skyjacked, Airport '75, Earthquake, the submarine-sinking Gray Lady Down) or kitschy science fiction knock-off (The Omega Man — based on the same source material as the recent Will Smith epic, I Am Legend — or the insanely off-kilter consumerism-as-cannibalism future shocker, Soylent Green), and made you believe in those, too.

I mean, the man starred in an Aaron Spelling-produced soap opera so cheesy that it was actually named after cheese — the mid-'80s Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys — and he was even imposing and awe-inspiring in that. If you can shine in an Aaron Spelling production, you've got serious chops, my friend.

Of course, my favorite Heston turn was his role as time-warped astronaut George Taylor in the first two films in what eventually became the Planet of the Apes franchise. If Heston had never done anything in his cinematic career other than break into bitter tears before the ruined shell of the Statue of Liberty — one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the movies — or blow up the entire world with his bloody hand on the detonator of a doomsday bomb, his place in popular culture would be forever sealed. But of course, he did those things, plus all of the aforementioned as well.

What a monumental career.

It would be a shame if all that people remembered about Chuck Heston was the ultra-conservative political animal he became late in life. (Unless you're a rebel-yelling, monster-truck-driving, pistol-packing gun nut yourself — in which case, I guess that will be what you remember. And to that, you're entitled. Different strokes for different folks, as Sly Stone and Gary Coleman used to say.) The man left behind a treasure trove of unforgettable screen performances, to be savored for generations. Keep your paws off my DVDs, you d--n dirty ape! (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to tell Mr. Heston how much I enjoyed his cinematic oeuvre. I did, however, sit next to his daughter Holly during a course in American Political Humor at Pepperdine University one semester. (Nice girl. I lent her a ballpoint pen once. She returned it. I didn't use it again for at least a week afterward.)

Mr. Heston was 84, and had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for the past several years. I share the sorrow of his family, his friends, and his well-earned legion of fans.

(Pssst... Soylent Green is people. Pass it on.)

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Gentleman Jim

Comics fans have experienced far too many sad times of late, what with such beloved and respected creators as Mike Wieringo, Steve Gerber, and Dave Stevens having passed away in recent months.

Unfortunately, the news isn't getting better.

Last weekend, veteran comic artist Jim Mooney left us. Mooney — known throughout fandom by the sobriquet given him by Stan Lee, "Gentleman Jim" — will be most remembered for his nearly decade-long run on Supergirl. By the time Mooney started his Supergirl stint, however, he had already been an industry fixture for almost two decades, and he was active in the field for more than 30 years after leaving the heroine with whom he was most closely identified.

Mooney's career in comics began in 1940 with Fox Publications, one of the myriad publishers in the then-burgeoning comic book business. He freelanced for several companies before landing at National Periodicals — more famous these days as DC Comics — in 1946, as one of the many uncredited artists who ghost-drew Batman under creator Bob Kane's byline.

(Historical side note: It's an ongoing source of humor among comics fans that while Batman appeared under Bob Kane's solo credit for decades, it's likely that Kane himself never drew so much as a single panel after the book's first several months. Instead, the art in Batman from the early 1940s through the mid-1960s was the work of such talented, albeit anonymous, artists as Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, Win Mortimer, Shelly Moldoff, and Jim Mooney. Stories about Kane's duplicity in assuming acclaim for other people's creative efforts run rampant. I once heard the late comics author Arnold Drake tell one about Kane's hiring a ghost artist to paint clown portraits, which Kane later signed and sold as his own work.)

In 1959, Mooney began illustrating the adventures of Supergirl, which appeared as the secondary feature in Action Comics. Mooney continued as Supergirl's primary artist until 1968. During this period, he also worked on such DC properties as Superboy and another personal favorite, Dial H for Hero, about a boy named Robby Reed whose magical dial transformed him into an incredible variety of superheroes — but rarely the same one twice. Mooney's charming, slightly cartoony style worked perfectly with these lighter-in-tone characters aimed at younger readers.

In the late '60s, Mooney moved to DC's rival, Marvel Comics, initially as the inker on Amazing Spider-Man. Several classic Spidey stories appeared during Mooney's run, as he was inking over the pencils of stalwarts John Romita, Sr. and John Buscema. I'm especially fond of the story arc that begins in Amazing Spider-Man #78, which introduces one of my all-time favorite Marvel characters: Hobie Brown, aka The Prowler. A few years ago, I was fortunate to purchase from Mooney this recreation of the cover of ASM #78, originally penciled by John Romita, Sr. with inks by Jim. This recreation is all Mooney, drawn in late 2004 when the artist was well into his 80s.

In addition to his Spider-Man work — including penciling the Web-Slinger's adventures in Spectacular Spider-Man and Marvel Team-Up — Mooney enjoyed memorable runs on several other books: Sub-Mariner, Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Omega the Unknown, and most notably (to me, anyway) Ms. Marvel. The combination of the longtime Supergirl artist and Marvel's blonde-tressed Woman Warrior (whose surname, Danvers, was borrowed from an alias once adopted by Supergirl) was sheer perfection.

In April 2005, Mooney was kind enough to allow me to purchase this clever creation, depicting a surprise meeting between the two heroines for whose adventures he was most renowned. It's a recreation of an earlier commission Jim drew for collector Michael Dunne.

Well into his golden age, Mooney continued to draw, both for publication and for private commissions. He was working on new series for the now-defunct Claypool Comics (Soulsearchers and Elvira) as recently as a few years ago.

Although I never had opportunity to meet Jim Mooney, I did correspond with him a few times and, as seen above, I bought a couple of his original artworks. He was unfailingly polite and kind — with each of the drawings I bought, he sent me an autographed print and a brief handwritten note of thanks. I had hoped to commission a piece from him, but after his beloved wife passed away a couple of years back, Mooney fell into ill health and cut back on commission projects. I wish now that I had moved ahead with my request, if only to let Jim know how much I appreciated his talents.

In a tribute to Mooney on his blog, News From ME, comics scribe and historian Mark Evanier speculates that Mooney may have been one of the most prolific artists ever to work in comic books — if not, in fact, the most prolific. That would not surprise me. For at least three-fourths of my 40 years of reading comics, there was scarcely a month when one could not pick up a new comic book that contained the work of Jim Mooney. Although perhaps not gifted with the creative genius of a Jack Kirby or the sheer brilliance of some of today's superstar artists, Mooney leaves behind a legacy of work that is staggering in both quality and variety.

Beside which, I've never heard or read a single negative word about the man. Given a career that spanned seven decades, that's a worthy testimony.

Rest in peace, Gentleman Jim.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Arranger, unlimited

I was saddened to read, over at John Neal's A Cappella News blog, that Gene Puerling, the legendary vocal artist, composer, and arranger, passed away last week.

Anyone who loves vocal jazz knows Gene Puerling's work. He first came to renown in the 1950s as founder, arranger, and musical director of the seminal vocal group, the Hi-Lo's. The Hi-Lo's (named for the group's top-to-bottom vocal ranges, as well as the strikingly disparate heights of its members) enjoyed enduring popularity until they parted company in the 1960s, though they reunited to record from time to time as late as the 1990s.

In 1967, Puerling formed one of the most amazing singing ensembles ever created: the Singers Unlimited. Using only four vocalists — tenor and former Hi-Lo Don Shelton, bass Len Dresslar, Puerling himself at baritone, and the incredible Bonnie Herman singing all of the female parts, sometimes as many as 30 in a single recording — pioneered multitracking at a time when almost no one in the recording industry outside of four guys from Liverpool was making music in that way. Puerling brought the Singers Unlimited together to record advertising jingles and commercials; however, the foursome also recorded a series of magnificent albums that stand as classics of vocal jazz.

The Singers Unlimited's A Cappella and Christmas are two of my favorite albums ever. You haven't fully appreciate all of the ways that human voices can be combined until you've heard the amazing harmonies of Puerling, Shelton, Dresslar, and Herman layered together on the Beatles' Michelle and Fool on the Hill.

Perhaps no other musician in the contemporary idiom lent as much to the art of vocal arranging as did Gene Puerling. Groups such as the Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices, and Take 6 owe their intricate approach to harmony to the work Puerling created for the Hi-Lo's and Singers Unlimited, as well as numerous other artists. His spectacular a cappella arrangement of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," written for and recorded by the Manhattan Transfer, won a Grammy in 1981. Puerling received a total of 14 Grammy nominations during his five-decade career.

I had an opportunity to meet Gene Puerling a few years ago, during one of his appearances as a judge at the finals of the Harmony Sweepstakes, the national a cappella championships. It was just a fleeting moment — we actually passed one another at the entrance to the men's room. (No, we did not shake hands.)

For fans of vocal music, Puerling leaves behind a tremendous legacy. It's fair to say that the contemporary a cappella movement would not exist without his influence — not, at least, in its present form and style.

You'll find an excellent interview with Puerling here. (Scroll about halfway down the page.)

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Nothin' says lovin' like a McMuffin in the oven

Let's all raise a glass to the late, great Herb Peterson, who changed the course of American cuisine forever.

Who's Herb Peterson?
you ask.

Why, the inventor of the Egg McMuffin, of course.

Peterson was a McDonalds franchise owner in Santa Barbara (and a former VP of the advertising firm that held the McDonalds account). In the early 1970s, Peterson, who was partial to eggs Benedict, decided to create a sandwich based on his favorite breakfast fare. His moment of genius: slap a fried egg, a slab of Canadian bacon, and a slice of good old American cheese between the buttered halves of an English muffin, and viola! A handheld simulation of eggs Benedict, perfect for dining on the go.

The Egg McMuffin spawned an entire menu of breakfast items at Mickey D's, including its close cousin, the Sausage McMuffin (like an Egg McMuffin, only with a sausage patty instead of Canadian bacon); the similar McGriddle (like a McMuffin, only with a maple-flavored, waffle-like pancake in place of the English muffin); Breakfast Burritos; and a host of scrambled egg and hotcake combination plates.

Other fast food chains quickly followed suit, leading to such quizzical creations as Jack-in-the-Box's Breakfast Jack (like an Egg McMuffin, only served on a hamburger bun instead of a muffin) and Burger King's Croissan'Wich (like an Egg McMuffin, only... well, you figure it out). Even Starbucks eventually got into the act, although the company recently decided to phase out its line of breakfast sandwiches because baristas complained that they were "too smelly." (The sandwiches, not the baristas. Although I imagine that some of the more bohemian espresso-slingers occasionally get a mite funky also.)

Peterson's brainchild also led to one of the funniest bits of scripted comedy ever produced. On National Lampoon's 1977 album That's Not Funny, That's Sick, a Mister Rogers spoof character named Mr. Roberts (played by future mockumentarian and Mr. Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Guest) interviews a fuzzy-brained bass player (played by future Not Ready for Prime Time Player and Scarlett Johansen costar Bill Murray) in typically inane Fred Rogers style:
Mr. Roberts: Can you say, "Egg McMuffin"?
Bassist: Eggamuffin.
Mr. Roberts: I like the way you say that.
At the time of his passing on Tuesday, Herb Peterson was 89 years old. I once ate an Egg McMuffin that had been desiccating under a heat lamp at least that long.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

They've killed Kinch!

Ivan Dixon, the talented actor-director best known to teleholics of a certain age as Sgt. James "Kinch" Kinchloe, the technical wizard POW on Hogan's Heroes, has died at age 76.

Dixon's Hollywood career began in the 1950s, when he served as Sidney Poitier's double and stand-in on such films as The Defiant Ones, and later as Poitier's costar in Porgy and Bess and A Raisin in the Sun. He became one of the first black actors to appear in a regular, nonstereotypical role on an American TV series when he was cast in Hogan's Heroes in 1965.

Dixon mostly set acting aside after leaving Hogan's at the end of the show's fifth season. (It remains one of TV's enduring mysteries that Hogan's Heroes stayed on the air for six years.) His two notable roles in post-Stalag 13 life were as Lonnie, the tough-yet-compassionate ex-con straw boss in the classic '70s film comedy Car Wash ("I got to have more money, Mr. B.!"), and as courageous Dr. Alan Drummond, a leader of the resistance movement in the Cold War drama Amerika.

Instead, Dixon refocused his career behind the camera, becoming one of TV's busiest directors throughout the '70s and '80s. He helmed the canvas chair for dozens of episodes of series television, most frequently on The Rockford Files (nine episodes) and Magnum P.I. (13 episodes), but also on shows as diverse as The Waltons, The Greatest American Hero, and Quantum Leap.

After retiring from directing, Dixon owned a radio station in Hawaii for a number of years. (I guess all those years as Colonel Hogan's communications guy finally paid off.)

His career honors included one Emmy nomination (Best Lead Actor in a Drama for the 1967 CBS Playhouse presentation The Final War of Olly Winter), four NAACP Image Awards, the National Black Theatre Award, and the Black American Cinema Society's Paul Robeson Pioneer Award.

As résumés go, that's a pretty darned good one.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rockets away, Dave Stevens

Most of the time, I relegate my comics-focused commentary to our Comic Art Friday feature. This week, however, so as not to cast a pall over the second half of our interview with Inkwell Awards founder Bob Almond — which you can enjoy in this space beginning tomorrow — I'm going to bend the rule just a touch, in a worthy cause.

Comic book and pinup artist Dave Stevens passed away from leukemia earlier this week, at the far-too-young age of 52.

Stevens was best known to the public and within the comics industry for two significant — and in an odd way, related — accomplishments.

First, he was the writer, artist, and creative visionary behind The Rocketeer, a groundbreaking yet wistfully nostalgic series that spawned a delightful live-action Disney film in 1991. (I understand that Stevens wasn't particularly pleased with the movie, and I respect his reasons. But I enjoyed it anyway.)

Second, Stevens was responsible for introducing 1950s pinup queen Bettie Page to a new legion of fans when he used Page's likeness as the model for the Rocketeer's girlfriend. Stevens also personally sought out and befriended Page herself, who had withdrawn from public life to the degree that many fans believed that she had died. The renewed interest in Page's career, prompted by Stevens's impeccable depiction of her in his numerous artworks, helped the former model gain some financial stability in addition to fresh admirers.

As an artist, Stevens was notorious for his meticulous approach to his work — an obsessiveness that severely limited his output. The work he did produce, though, was nothing short of incredible. No one in the business drew more flawlessly beautiful women or more lushly detailed settings. Every artist creating "good girl" art today owes a debt of influence and inspiration to Stevens, both for his synthesis of the great masters of the form and for his own technical brilliance.

Stevens also earned a well-founded reputation as an intensely private individual — although he had battled leukemia for several years, many of his fans (myself included) remained unaware of his illness until the news of his death arrived.

It's unfortunate that the relative scantiness (no pun intended) of Stevens's production volume will prevent his work from being more widely known and appreciated outside the circle of comics fans and pinup art collectors. He was as enormous a talent as this generation of artists has produced.

A few years back, I commissioned Heavy Metal artist Michael L. Peters to create a piece for my Common Elements series featuring the Rocketeer and DC Comics' interplanetary adventurer, Adam Strange. It's as close to a Stevens original as I'm ever likely to own.

Michael's drawing is the only Common Elements artwork on permanent display in my home — it hangs on the north wall of our living room. I will treasure it always as a loving homage to Stevens's creation.

For fans who wish to pay their respects in a tangible way, Stevens's family asks that donations in Dave Stevens's name be made to the Hairy Cell Leukemia Research Foundation.

Keep 'em flying, Dave.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Gygax? Dygax. Bygax.

When I heard that Dungeons & Dragons cocreator Gary Gygax had died, in a flash it was 1978 all over again.

Now, you might suppose that — considering my lifelong obsession with comic books — I've been a major-league gamer geek also, as the two addictions often go hand in hand.

In thinking so, however, you would be mistaken.

I never really got into role-playing games. The only reason I ever played any D&D at all is because I had a couple of friends who were into the game for all of about five minutes, so I played the game with them just because it was the thing to do. I found the whole business arduous and more than a trifle silly. Attention-challenged as I am, I could never compel myself to slog through D&D's interminable rule books, or to grasp the myriad bits of arcane lore from which the game evolved. Plus, the multisided dice confused my prosaic, doggedly concrete sensibilities.

About the only part of the game I enjoyed was creating the characters. In fact, somewhere in my files I have shreds of an epic fantasy novel populated entirely with heroes I came up with during my momentary flirtation with D&D — sword-slinging warriors with names like Raldraxx and Pandrill and Skylodon, who teamed up to battle an evil wizard known as Traver Morninglight. It didn't take me long to figure out that I was no Robert E. Howard, much less a J.R.R. Tolkien.

I did like writing funny songs about the various forms of eldritch creatures that inhabited the D&D universe. You'd be amazed at how many hilarious, even ribald rhymes one can weave using Kobolds, Orcs, and Gelatinous Cubes.

Or perhaps you would not.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Seeing the light at last

I was totally bummed to learn of the death yesterday of guitarist Jeff Healey.

Blinded in infancy by a rare form of retinal cancer, Healey battled the deadly disease throughout his 41 years of life.

During that time, he also made some spectacular music. His 1988 album, See the Light, combined Healey's unique guitar stylings — he played with the instrument lying flat across his lap, and strummed it sideways — with his raw, blues-edged vocals.

Viewers of late-night cable remember Healey's appearance in the B-movie classic, Road House, in which the hard-rocking musician was featured as Cody, the leader of the title establishment's house band. Healey's musical numbers were the best thing about that improbable, yet oddly compelling, little piece of cinema magic... unless you're into Patrick Swayze's sweat-sheened pecs. But that's not how I roll.

In recent years, Healey had gravitated toward jazz, releasing a string of well-received albums in that genre. (Uncle Swan's favorite: the 2006 release It's Tight Like That.) His latest recording, however, reportedly marked a return to his blues-rock roots. Mess of Blues will be released next month, and you've gotta know I'll pick up a copy.

Jeff Healey leaves behind a wife, two children, and a legion of fans, among whom I'm proud to be counted.

Rest in peace, blind man.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Buckley stops here

Some of you — heck, perhaps all of you — will be flabbergasted to read this, but I'm going to say it anyway:

I'm going to miss William F. Buckley.

Were I going to populate a dinner table with the guests from throughout human history I believed would make the most fascinating conversation, Buckley would be near the top of the invitation list. The "godfather of American conservatism" was erudite, witty, disarmingly charming, and often hilarious. If you ever saw any of his Firing Line broadcasts — and I tuned in quite a few, over the program's 33 years on the air — you witnessed a master of the art of interlocution in action.

Buckley's gift for language was both compelling and astounding. Yes, he was perhaps overfond of his own repartee and Brobdingnagian vocabulary, but I have to confess that I learned a lot of interesting words and phrases from Buckley's talk shows and columns. The obvious relish with which Buckley wielded the tongue of Shakespeare is especially remarkable when one considers that it was his third language — he learned to speak Spanish and French in childhood, and began to study English only when he entered school at age seven.

As a political pundit, Buckley possessed the rarest of talents: the ability to engage in civil, even affectionate, discourse with people with whom he strongly disagreed. Although unquestionably opinionated, and not above using his rapier wit to belittle an opponent, Buckley managed to maintain positive relations with people at the opposite extremes of the philosophical spectrum from his own conservative-libertarian base. Many of his closest friends, such as liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, held views far removed from Buckley's. But he had that knack: even if you disagreed with him, you kind of liked the old goat. Grudgingly, perhaps, but still.

Buckley and I would not have found much common ground in a political or sociological debate. Even so, I appreciated his willingness to at least hear other sides of an issue, and to take occasional stands that set him at odds with those of like stripe, such as his often-stated position that the Bush administration's Iraq policy has been a complete failure.

Buckley also demonstrated that he could change his mind about things. Once an ardent defender of the racist, anti-Semitic John Birch Society during the 1950s, he repudiated the organization a decade later. Where Buckley once openly supported South African apartheid in the National Review, he later acknowledged that, had he been a black South African, he would have supported Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.

Did Buckley ever fully renounce his own personal racism and anti-Semitism? I don't know — I never met the man. Let's just say I probably wouldn't have wanted him to marry my daughter.

I do think that I'd have enjoyed sitting across a table from him, and kicking ideas around over coffee. We might not have concurred about much. I'd like to think, however, that we'd both have at least heard a few well-articulated opinions.

And more than a few fifty-dollar words.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

R.I.P., Steve Gerber

Today's a sad Comic Art Friday...

Comic book creator Steve Gerber passed away earlier this week.

Gerber was one of the leading lights in Marvel Comics' "second generation" of writers, those who came along in the early '70s after Stan Lee had reduced his prodigious output. Gerber, in particular, quickly gained a reputation for an off-kilter, freewheeling style — punctuated by weird humor and oblique satire — that seemed especially well suited to some of Marvel's fringe characters.

It was while writing one of those fringe characters — the swamp monster called Man-Thing — that Gerber's unique voice found its ultimate avatar in an angry feathered creature named Howard the Duck.

Howard became Gerber's signature character, as well as the focal point of a long-running legal battle between the writer and the publishing company. While at Marvel, Gerber also co-created such memorable characters as Shanna the She-Devil, a jungle heroine, and Omega the Unknown, a mysterious superpowered alien who forms an unusual connection with a gifted Earth boy.

My favorite of Gerber's works was his two-year run on The Defenders, which I've mentioned previously in this space as one of my favorite comics of the '70s. Although several other talented writers preceded (Steve Englehart, Chris Claremont, Len Wein) and followed (David Anthony Kraft, Ed Hannigan, J.M. DeMatteis) Gerber on Defenders, the series really came into its own under his authorship in 1975-76.

In memory of Steve Gerber, let's look at a few artworks from my collection that feature members of the Defenders.

As "Marvel's greatest non-team," the Defenders usually brought together characters who weren't generally known as team players. Their founder and leader was sorcerer supreme Dr. Strange, master of the mystic arts. The good Doctor appears here by way of the potent pencil of artist Geof Isherwood.

The original triumvirate of Defenders partnered Dr. Strange with Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, and the gamma-irradiated green Goliath known as the Hulk. Bruce Banner's hulking alter ego locks horns with the mighty Thor in this artwork, penciled by Dan Jurgens and inked by Bob Almond.

One of the first expansions of the Defenders' non-roster added the sword-slinging superheroine Valkyrie, depicted here by penciler Michael Dooney and inker Bob Almond. As other early Defenders additions came and went (i.e., the Silver Surfer, the Black Knight, Hawkeye), the Valkyrie remained, becoming one of the team's most prominent members.

The group's next significant addition was Nighthawk, a sort of airborne Batman type. An established villain, Nighthawk switched sides from evil to good in order to help the Defenders defeat his former cronies, the Squadron Sinister. Nighthawk quickly became a popular Defender, ultimately becoming the team's de facto field general. Here, Nighthawk poses down with Kyle Rayner of the Green Lantern Corps, in a "Common Elements" spectacular by Kyle Hotz.

Steve Gerber continued to work periodically in comics after his '70s heyday. He also branched out into television animation, creating the popular series Thundarr the Barbarian and writing and story-editing such shows as Dungeons and Dragons, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. He remained a prominent advocate for creators' rights throughout his career.

If you're interested in learning far more about Gerber's life and impact on the comics industry than I could ever hope to share, you'll find an extensive list of links over at The Comics Reporter. Please take a moment and browse a few of the tributes — you'll be both astounded and moved.

At the time of his death from pulmonary fibrosis, Steve Gerber was 60. He was awaiting a lung transplant when he died.

He will, without question, be sincerely missed.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The missing Linc

It's Lincoln's Birthday today!

Oh, what a joyous occasion!

Lincoln has always been a hero of mine. He hung tough in the face of adversity and violent opposition. He stood determined in his resolve to battle injustice and hatred. Charismatic, yet possessed with a dignified cool. A champion defender of the disenfranchised, and a staunch advocate for the rights of black Americans.

Plus, his monster Afro and aviator shades were wicked cool.


Oh, you meant this Lincoln...

...not this Lincoln.

Never mind, then. Carry on.


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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A rolling stone gathers no Morse

The news got a trifle lost amid all the political claptrap, but it's my sad duty to report that actor Barry Morse has passed away.

If you're of a certain age, you will recall Morse as the indomitable Lt. Philip Gerard in the classic 1960s TV drama The Fugitive. (Morse's character was the model for the Tommy Lee Jones role in the Fugitive theatrical film and its sequel, U.S. Marshals.)

For four tension-filled seasons, Gerard pursued the innocent yet accused Dr. Richard Kimble — played by one of television's most memorable stars, David Janssen — before gunning down the one-armed murderer of Kimble's wife in the final episode. That shocking conclusion stood for years as TV's most-viewed hour, until those infernal Super Bowls began catching up.

Slightly more youthful teleholics remember that in the mid-'70s, Morse costarred alongside Mission: Impossible veterans Martin Landau and Barbara Bain in the first season of Space: 1999. It was never clear to me whether Morse actually left the sci-fi series after the first year, or perhaps simply dozed off in his dressing room while reading the notoriously soporific show's next script and no one bothered to awaken him.

If you happen to encounter Mr. Morse in the near future, however, I don't believe he's sleeping.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Religious dead pool update

It's an unhealthy week to be the leader of a major religion.

Both Archbishop Christodoulos, the head of the Greek Orthodox church, and Gordon Hinckley, the president of the Latter-Day Saints, died within the past two days.

If you see Pope Benedict and the Dalai Lama checking each other's pulses, you'll understand why.

No one wants to be the third leg of the trifecta.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Bombs away, dream babies

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of John Stewart, the singer-songwriter who passed away last Saturday at the age of 68.

Stewart was most familiar to music aficionados as a member of the seminal folk group, the Kingston Trio, with whom he performed in the early to middle 1960s, and as the composer of the pop standard "Daydream Believer," a hit for both The Monkees and Canadian songstress Anne Murray.

For me, though, the quintessential John Stewart recording was his 1979 solo album, Bombs Away Dream Babies, with its Top Ten single, "Gold." ("Midnight Wind," from the same album, was a pretty decent tune, also.) The album features stellar backing vocals by Stevie Nicks, and guitars by her Fleetwood Mac (and one-time real-life) mate, Lindsey Buckingham.

As a college radio DJ in the early '80s, I gave that platter frequent enough airplay that Stewart's label should have slipped me payola. (First Dan Fogelberg, now John Stewart — I am burning through my street cred at a horrifying rate.) I was mildly surprised to learn from his obits that Stewart lived just down the freeway from me, in Marin County, for the last several years of his life.

Bombs Away Dream Babies may very well be one of the five or six coolest album titles ever. So cool, in fact, I swiped it for this next installment in my Common Elements comic art series.

Artist Andy Smith, who contributed some sensational pencils to a Red Sonja/Claw the Unconquered crossover miniseries a while back, brings together two of comics' greatest "dream babies." That's the improbably monikered Horatio Hellpop — better known as the cosmic superhero Nexus — at left. His fetching companion is Nura Nal, the precognitive heroine whose Legion of Super-Heroes code name is Dream Girl.

Like the rest of her Legion teammates, Dream Girl has been a fixture in comics since the early 1960s. Although she's one of the least imposing Legionnaires — to be honest, the ability to see the future in dreams isn't exactly the most scintillating superpower — she's retained her position as a mainstay of the popular squad for more than four decades. And finally, after years of snore-inducing, solid white costumes, she's finally obtained a visually interesting uniform — the cloud-themed ensemble Andy Smith depicts in his drawing above.

The creation of writer Mike Baron and artist Steve "The Dude" Rude, Nexus is a young man living in the far-flung future who receives amazing superpowers in exchange for bringing the galaxy's mass murderers to justice. Horatio experiences painful nightmares about his intended targets' crimes that only subside when the evildoers are executed by the powers of Nexus. It sounds a lot darker than it actually plays — Baron and Rude infuse the material with a propulsive sense of fun and wonder, and never take themselves (or their hero) too seriously.

One of comics' most recognizable stylists, Steve Rude has become something of a legend in the industry with his dramatic line and clutter-free design sense. That combination is evident in this commission Rude created for me a couple of years ago, pitting Mary Marvel against an onslaught of guided missiles. Bombs away, Mary!

Rude's work is heavily influenced by such artists as Jack Kirby, and especially by Alex Toth, to whose Space Ghost character Nexus bears some (not entirely unintentional) resemblance — as you can see in this Common Elements drawing by Scott Rosema, in which Space Ghost appears alongside the Western hero Ghost Rider.

Nexus, incidentally, is that extreme rarity in comics — an independently distributed, creator-owned superhero comic that's both well-reviewed and reasonably successful. Nexus's adventures first began appearing in the early 1980s, ran more or less regularly for a decade (with an occasional shift in publishers), then resurfaced periodically throughout the '90s. Baron and Rude relaunched the series last year after a lengthy hiatus. They also just reissued Nexus's origin story — a great way to introduce new readers to this terrific character.

And that, dream babies, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I know how to quit you, Heath Ledger

KM and I were driving KJ home from her latest hospital stint when we heard the stunning news about the death of Heath Ledger.

As sorry as I am to admit it, my first reaction when I heard the radio headline was, "I'll bet it had something to do with drugs." And indeed, the initial report by the New York Times and other media outlets indicates exactly that. A shame, a pity, and a tragic waste.

Although it was probably his least demanding role, my favorite Ledger performance was his turn as the youthful jousting wannabe in A Knight's Tale, a picture that a lot of folks disliked, but that I thoroughly enjoyed through repeated viewings. It was in that film that Ledger's natural boyish charisma really shone. I was not as impressed as some others were with his more dramatically challenging work — I found his much-acclaimed clenched-jawed acting in Brokeback Mountain, for example, excessively mannered and affected, to the point of weirdness.

When Heath was cast as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's upcoming Batman Begins sequel, The Dark Knight, I couldn't imagine for the life of me how that was going to work. Ledger seemed far too lightweight for a role with that much darkness and venom in it. The trailers, however, won me over, and I was looking forward to seeing the full impact of Ledger's portrayal. I still am, though the experience will doubtless be bittersweet now.

Another successful young talent devoured by the demons of fame and fortune, or so it appears.

And that's no joke.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Praise Bozo, and pass the Pepto-Bismol

Ladies and gentlemen, please doff your caps and raise your forks.

Eddie "Bozo" Miller has died.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Bozo the Clown died? Well, yes and no. The first man to wear the famous Bozo makeup and attire — cartoonist, comedian, and voice actor Pinto Colvig, best remembered as the voice of Walt Disney's Goofy and of Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — died in 1967. The most famous Bozos — NBC weatherman Willard Scott and entrepreneur Larry Harmon, who owns the Bozo trademark — are both very much alive at this writing.

But I digress.

Eddie "Bozo" Miller was not a clown — at least, not in the traditional sense. Instead, Bozo Miller — no relation to the greasepainted TV icon — was the first of the great modern trenchermen.

That means Bozo could eat.

A lot.

Decades before competitive food-guzzling devolved into Saturday afternoon ESPN fare, and decades before skinny Japanese guys made themselves household names by pounding endless streams of frankfurters and raw oysters down their gullets, Bozo Miller was the undisputed ruler of the independent kingdom of Gastronomy.

Miller first cracked into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1963, when he devoured 27 two-pound roast chickens in a single sitting at a Trader Vic's restaurant in the East Bay. For more than half a century, Bozo dazzled his friends with displays of prodigious consumption. The Guinness book reported that he was undefeated in eating contests between 1931 and 1981.

In his prime, Bozo packed away 25,000 calories a day. He once ate 30 pounds of elk meat loaf — I know, it turned my stomach just typing it — and on another occasion, 324 ravioli. Miller once chowed down 63 Dutch apple pies in an hour. My neighborhood supermarket doesn't even sell 63 Dutch apple pies in a week. Maybe a month.

Not a man to limit himself to a single aspect of conspicuous consuming, Bozo could drink, too. He regularly swilled a dozen martinis before lunchtime. He claimed to have drunk a lion — yes, an honest-to-Simba lion — under the table once. The lion didn't dispute the claim.

When Bozo wasn't eating — and I'm uncertain exactly when that might have been — he was a fixture at Bay Area racetracks. I would not be at all surprised to learn that horses with Bozo's money riding on them usually ran a step or two faster, for fear that Bozo would eat them if they lost. For all I know, he may have.

And here's the kicker: Brian Maxwell, marathon runner and PowerBar inventor, died at age 51; fitness guru Jim Fixx, at 52; health food promoter Euell Gibbons, at 64; low-carb diet doctor Robert Atkins, at 72.

Bozo Miller — the self-proclaimed World Champion of Gourmand Gastronomics — munched, gulped, and scarfed his way to the ripe old age of 89.

Chew on that, why don't you?

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bowman the Showman's last show

I was startled out of my rhinovirus-induced stupor just now by the news that former figure skating champion Christopher Bowman died today in Los Angeles of an apparent drug overdose.

Bowman — nicknamed "Bowman the Showman" for his aggressive, flashy skating style — won the U.S. men's title twice (1989 and 1992, with second-place finishes in '87 and '91). He represented the United States on two Olympic teams, albeit with disappointing results (a seventh-place finish in Calgary in 1988, and a fourth in Albertville, France, in 1992). He scored a silver medal at the World Figure Skating Championships in 1988, and a bronze the following year.

Prior to his athletic fame, Bowman was a child actor, familiar to TV viewers from dozens of commercials, plus a recurring role in the series Little House on the Prairie. But like many child stars, he encountered problems with drugs — he later acknowledged having a serious cocaine habit during his competitive years — and the law. Bowman was arrested in 2004 on charges of carrying a gun while intoxicated.

He was poised to make a return to acting this year, costarring in the new sports film Down and Distance alongside Gary Busey, Lil' Romeo, and Master P.

Bowman the Showman was 40 years old.

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Pudgy! passes

Just in time to make the list of Celebrities Who Croaked in 2007 comes word that Beverly Vines, the popular mistress of ceremonies and insult comedian known by the stage name Pudgy!, has died.

I first saw Pudgy! (always spelled with an exclamation point) on one of her several appearances on Showtime cable in the early '80s. For those of you unfamiliar with her act, imagine a female Don Rickles — or, to cite a more contemporary reference, think Lisa Lampinelli without the torrential profanity. Pudgy! specialized in off-the-cuff ripostes at members of her audience, demonstrating a nimble wit and an engaging ability to poke fun at herself as much as others. (She called herself Pudgy!... and she was.)

It's been at least 20 years since I last saw Pudgy!, but on our most recent Vegas vacation, I was pleased to see that she was still working. As she often did when playing Vegas, she was headlining a burlesque revue featuring younger, more svelte women removing their clothes. I thought it amusing that a comic who rarely worked blue frequently hooked up with raunchy strip shows, but I guess she enjoyed the hours and the paychecks.

Pudgy! was a hilariously funny lady, and from what I've heard, well-liked and respected in a tough industry. Hopefully Comedy Central will dig up some of her old tapes and air them sometime soon.

I haven't seen a cause of death cited in any of the obits, but I know that Pudgy! had a history of heart problems and underwent bypass surgery some years ago.

She'll no doubt be missed by her family, friends, and many fans.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Yet another auld lang syne

So much for the '70s... and the early '80s, too.

Dan Fogelberg has left the planet.

I am secure enough in my masculinity to admit that I both owned and enjoyed Dan Fogelberg albums back in the day. (So did you. Admit it. Just try and convince me that you're not recalling that dusty copy of Twin Sons of Different Mothers — Fogelberg's hit collaboration with flautist Tim Weisberg, featuring the most ambiguously gay album cover ever attached to a record by two straight guys — at this very moment.)

Call me a wimpy, flaccid girly-man if you will, but I dug Fogelberg's plaintive singing and his simplistic guitar stylings. Plus, I'm a sucker for a song that tells a story, whether it's Fogelberg's "Leader of the Band" or "Another Old Lang Syne," or Young MC's "Bust a Move." I appreciate lyrics that take me somewhere and give me cause to reflect, and Fogelberg's songs did just that.

Not everything Fogelberg ever recorded was elevator music, despite the numerous wisecracks made at his expense by stand-up comics. My favorite Fogelberg song is "The Power of Gold," an uptempo riff on the seductive influence of filthy lucre:
Balance the cost of the soul you lost
With the dreams you lightly sold
Then tell me
That you're free
Of the power of gold.
"Part of the Plan," from Fogelberg's album Souvenirs — produced by rock guitar legend Joe Walsh — is a pretty tasty rocker, too.

In one of my earliest experiences in ensemble singing, I performed in a mixed octet whose repertoire mixed religious music with contemporary ballads. (We sang at a lot of weddings. Funerals, too.) When we covered Dan Fogelberg's "Longer" — a popular wedding staple back in the day — I sang the high harmonies. I can feel my Fruit of the Looms cinching up even now, as I think about it.

Dan Fogelberg has been battling prostate cancer for the past three years. His battle ended at age 56.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

I Wanda, Wanda who wrote the Book of Love

Before we dive into this week's Comic Art Friday, I'd just like to note that KJ's gall bladder removal (or laparoscopic cholecystectomy, for those of you playing Grey's Anatomy at home) went swimmingly yesterday. As of about an hour ago, she's now resting comfortably at home. Thanks for all of the kind thoughts.

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of comic book artist and writer Wayne Howard, who died of cardiac arrest on Sunday at age 59. Like many top talents of the 1960s and '70s, Howard began his career in comics as an assistant to the legendary Wallace Wood. He also worked with the equally legendary Will Eisner for a time. Howard's visual style hewed more closely to Wood's than any of the other artists who apprenticed under him, which is probably one reason I enjoyed his work so much.

For most of his tenure in funnybooks, Howard worked on mystery and horror titles for Charlton Comics, a budget-minded publisher that often presented more off-the-wall fare than either Marvel or DC did in those days. He was best known for Midnight Tales, a horror anthology series whose stories Howard drew and frequently wrote. The book is noteworthy as one of the first mainstream comics — if not indeed the very first — to acknowledge its creator with a cover byline, a practice that's standard in the industry today.

From my hormonal preadolescence, I mostly remember Midnight Tales because it featured (thanks to Wally Wood's unmistakable influence) some of the most fetchingly drawn female characters to be found anywhere. What I didn't know until word of his passing came across the Internet earlier this week was that Wayne Howard was African-American — one of the very few black artists in mainstream comics at that time.

We extend heartfelt condolences to Mr. Howard's family, and to his legion of fans.

Wayne Howard only worked on a handful of issues for Marvel Comics, none of which featured my favorite Marvel heroine of the '60s, Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. But I'm positive that, given the opportunity, Howard would have drawn a sensational Wanda. Since he didn't get that chance, let's look at three depictions of Wanda by artists who did, at least once.

First up, a stylish pencil drawing by one of Marvel's stalwarts of the '90s, MC Wyman.

That dotted effect that Wyman uses to illustrate Wanda's hex bolt power is known in comics lore as "Kirby crackle." Jack Kirby, probably the most influential and prolific artist in American comic books, created that signature visual texture, and employed it frequently to depict everything from cosmic radiation to the Silver Surfer's energy blasts.

Our second look at our vermilion-clad heroine comes from the pencil of the talented Jamal Igle.

Igle has been an active contributor at DC Comics since the early '90s. He's worked periodically for Marvel also, most notably on the miniseries Iron Fist/Wolverine. Currently, Igle is the regular penciler on DC's Nightwing, having completed a recent run on Firestorm: The Nuclear Man.

Our third and final Wanda displays the craft of an artist who signs his (or possibly her) work with the nom de plume Zeneilton.

Pretty much the only thing I can report about Zeneilton is that he (or possibly she) draws a mighty fine-looking Scarlet Witch.

And that, friend reader, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Not good, not bad... just Evel

Another chapter of my increasingly long-ago youth has departed the premises:

Evel Knievel died yesterday.

It's a fitting testament to the unparalleled weirdness that characterized America in the 1960s and '70s that one of our most recognizable entertainment icons from that period was a guy who jumped over large objects — and, on frequent occasion, failed spectacularly in the attempt — while riding on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

To young people who've grown up in the era of ubiquitous stunt reality television from Survivor to Jackass to The X Games, it probably seems bizarre that a professional daredevil was once such a novelty that his performances would sell out football stadiums, and make front page headlines in newspapers and lead stories on network news programs. But back in the day, Robert Craig Knievel Jr. — known to the world by his nickname, Evel — was that mammoth a star.

And believe me, we ate it up.

When Evel made one of his famous jumps on ABC's Wide World of Sports — the biggest thing going in televised sports in those pre-ESPN days — ratings skyrocketed. The clip of his spectacular crash at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas is one of the most repeated snippets of film in the history of broadcasting. When Evel made his ill-fated attempt to vault Idaho's Snake River Canyon in a rocket car designed by former NASA engineer Robert Truax, the world held its collective breath.

Elvis may have been the King, but Evel was the Emperor.

The youthful Uncle Swan was a major Evel Knievel fan. I owned his Ideal Toys action figure. I played dozens, maybe hundreds, of games on his Bally pinball machine. I devoured his cover story in Rolling Stone, and Shelly Saltman's unauthorized biography — the one that so incensed Evel that he assaulted Saltman with a baseball bat and spent six months in jail. I eagerly tuned in Evel's every TV appearance, even when he popped up as himself on dreadful programs I'd never have watched otherwise. A poster of Evel in his trademark white star-spangled jumpsuit adorned my bedroom wall. I paid actual money to see his self-starring 1977 biopic, Viva Knievel, and hardly cared that the man couldn't act. (The earlier Evel Knievel, starring the perpetually tan George Hamilton in the title role, was only marginally better.)

For a kid who loved comic book superheroes, Evel Knievel was as close to the real thing as one could get.

After his daredevil career ended in the early '80s, Evel Knievel's life meandered down a dark and painful road. He went bankrupt, ran repeatedly afoul of law enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service, and struggled with numerous health problems — some stemming from the world record number of broken bones Evel suffered in his infamous crashes; others, such as the hepatitis-C that necessitated a liver transplant in 1999, resulting from the numerous blood transfusions his injuries required. A lengthy history of diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis finally claimed the life of the self-proclaimed "last gladiator" at age 69.

Still, even in his final days, Evel was never far from the spotlight. Earlier this year, he found religion and was baptized on Robert Schuller's Hour of Power program in front of a nationwide TV audience. A couple of months ago, Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera premiered in Los Angeles to mostly positive reviews. Only a few days before his death, Evel settled a lawsuit against rapper Kanye West over Kanye's unauthorized use of Evel's trademarked image in one of his videos.

Despite the proliferation of self-destructive insanity in modern popular culture — and the ongoing career of Evel's son Robbie, who followed his father into the daredevil trade — we will never see the like of Evel Knievel again. He was truly an original, and unquestionably unique.

Thanks for all the thrills, Evel.

Happy landings.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

See you later, Dr. Gator

Let's all raise our glasses in memory of James Robert Cade, MD, who died today of kidney failure at age 80.

Who's James Robert Cade? you ask. To which Uncle Swan replies: Only one of the most important figures in the history of modern athletics.

Dr. Cade, you see, was the man who invented Gatorade.

In 1965, Dr. Cade, a member of the medical school faculty at the University of Florida, was asked a seemingly imponderable question by one of the university's assistant football coaches, Dwayne Douglas: "Doctor, why don't football players wee-wee after a game?" (We used euphemisms like "wee-wee" in 1965, children.)

Cade researched the matter, and discovered that football players sweated off as much as 18 pounds of water weight during the average three-hour contest. The good doctor reasoned that it might be possible to develop a supplement that would replenish the fluids and salt the players perspired away, thus improving their stamina and overall health.

Cade and his staff went to work brewing up their magical potion. After several less-than-successful attempts, they hit upon the formula we now know as Gatorade — named, of course, after the Florida football team, not in honor of any reptilian ingredient in the concoction itself. (Or so Cade said.)

And thus, an industry was born.

The University of Florida, incidentally, collects a royalty on the name Gatorade from the manufacturer, PepsiCo — an arrangement that has netted the school more than $150 million over the decades. Righteous bucks, as Jeff Spicoli would say.

Personally, I find the flavor and mouthfeel of Gatorade and similar "sports drinks" repellent. But you can't argue with $7.5 billion per year in gross revenue.

Dr. Cade, I'm sure, would drink to that.

One final note: The people at Pepsi would like to assure you that Dr. Cade's death from kidney failure is not directly attributable to 40-plus years of drinking Gatorade. At least, that's the company line.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Please don't squeeze the Whipple

My next visit to the bathroom won't be quite the same...

Mr. Whipple has passed away.

If you're of a certain age, you can't help but recall those incessant commercials for Charmin toilet paper from the mid-1960s through the late '80s, in which bespectacled grocer George Whipple uttered his trademark catchphrase: "Please don't squeeze the Charmin!" Of course, once Mr. Whipple wrapped his clutching fingers around a package of that delectably pillowy bathroom tissue, he could never help getting his own squeeze on.

The actor behind the Whipple, Dick Wilson, died this morning at age 91. The British-born Riccardo DiGuglielmo grew up in Canada, and moved to the U.S. after serving in the Canadian Air Force during World War II. As an actor, he used his mother's maiden name to avoid being typecast in ethnic Italian roles.

Instead, he was typecast as a fussy merchant with a fetish for groping toilet paper. I suppose that's better, in some ways.

Wilson played numerous non-Whipple roles during his seven-decade acting career. He was a frequent guest star on Bewitched and Hogan's Heroes, and appeared in dozens of other sitcoms and TV dramas over the years. Wilson even turned up in a Cheech and Chong movie. (Rumors that he rolled a doobie out of Charmin proved to be erroneous.)

Although Procter & Gamble put Mr. Whipple out to pasture in 1985 (ads featuring Whipple continued in repeats for a few years thereafter), Wilson made a brief return to the character in 1999, when a retired Mr. Whipple returned to the supermarket to sell an upgraded version of Charmin.

Dick Wilson, I'm dedicating my next flush to you.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Ink 'em up, Joe

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of legendary comic artist Paul Norris, who died on Monday at age 93.

Norris will be most widely recalled as the co-creator of Aquaman. Apart from his Sea King, however, Norris enjoyed a lengthy and varied career drawing numerous comic books and newspaper comics. Most notably, he drew the daily strip Brick Bradford for 35 years, beginning in 1952.

Norris was one of the last survivors among the great Golden Age comic creators. His work will live on long after him.

Speaking of comic artists with lengthy and varied careers, I recently received a package of completed commissions from Joe Rubinstein, who's been inking comics for almost as long as I've been reading them. As you Comic Art Friday regulars know, that's pretty darned long.

Joe started inking jobs for the major comics publishers while still in his teens, as an assistant to influential giants Wally Wood, Neal Adams, and Dick Giordano. Unlike many of his contemporaries who entered the field in the early 1970s, Joe has continued working regularly in comics to this very day. His list of inking credits covers pretty much every familiar superhero published in the last 35 years, plus hundreds more that even Joe has probably forgotten. His line work — smooth, crisp, graceful, eminently adaptable yet distinctive — continues to flourish. (He's also one heck of a painter, specializing in fine portraiture.)

So let's take a before-and-after look at what just rolled off Joe's drawing board.

The very first two-character piece I ever commissioned was this Michael Dooney stunner featuring the first two Marvel Comics heroines to bear the code name Spider-Woman. That's the original Spider-Woman, Jessica Drew, on the left; her successor, Julia Carpenter, on the right.

This was the commission that inspired and laid the foundation for my Common Elements theme series. For that reason, it carries a mountain of sentimental value for me. Joe and I first discussed him inking it shortly after Dooney drew it, nearly three years ago. It took me a long time to pull the trigger, but I'm glad that I finally did.

Speaking of Common Elements, one of the pieces in that series that consistently draws raves from artists and other collectors is this pairing of the Valkyrie (late of the seminal '70s superteam, the Defenders) and Nightcrawler (longtime stalwart of the X-Men and Excalibur), drawn by the incredible Dave Ross.

Like the Dooney Spider-Women artwork, I had Joe in mind to ink this one almost from the day I first saw it. And of course, when I finally let him have it, Joe did a spectacular job. He even went to the surprising (to me, anyway) length of contacting Dave Ross to get his input on how the inking ought to be approached. A true professional, that Rubinstein.

I love the work of Brazilian artist Al Rio. I'd own several dozen of Al's fully penciled pieces if I had the means to afford them. Alas, I'm a mere working stiff, and Al's commissions cost serious bank. I've had, however, remarkable success picking up Al's less costly rough sketches and having them embellished in ink by other artists.

This Supergirl sketch was a preliminary drawing for a commission Al did recently. (His finished piece features the Maid of Steel flying in from another angle, with a completely different aerial perspective of the building behind her.)

The moment I saw this sketch available for sale, I wanted Joe to ink it. Originally, I had planned to send Joe a different Rio drawing in this batch of commission projects. Once I scored this little number, that piece ended up in the hands of another extremely talented inker instead. Both decisions turned out perfectly.

I never cease to marvel (no pun intended) at how two comic artists — one working in pencil, the other in ink — can seamlessly meld their imaginations and skills to create artworks that reflect the talents of each. I consider myself tremendously fortunate to have so many beautiful examples of that phenomenon in my collection.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Kisses and love won't carry me 'til you marry me, Bill

We just got home from the supermarket a little while ago, and now "Wedding Bell Blues" is stuck in my head.

Thanks a ton, Muzak.

The awesome reality about this song, of course, is that Marilyn McCoo — who sang the lead vocal on the classic 5th Dimension hit — and Billy Davis, Jr. — the "Bill" of the plaintive line, "Come on and marry me, Bill!" — actually did get married in 1969, a few months after the song was released, and are still (allegedly happily) married 38 years later.

Ain't love grand?

Still doesn't help me get this doggoned song out of my head, though.

Although many people presume that McCoo and/or Davis wrote "Wedding Bell Blues," given how inextricably entwined with their professional and personal lives the song has become over the past four decades, it's actually the work of the tremendously talented Laura Nyro, also the creative genius behind such standards as "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Sweet Blindness," and "Save The Country," also recorded by the 5th Dimension; Three Dog Night's "Eli's Coming"; and the unforgettable "And When I Die," made famous by David Clayton Thomas and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

It's one of the great tragedies of modern music that Nyro, perhaps one of the most brilliant composer/lyricists of the pop era, remains largely unknown today, for two reasons: (1) most of her better-known songs are more closely associated with other artists who covered them, as is the case with "Wedding Bell Blues"; and (2) she disliked performing in public — and particularly on television — and thus was not seen and appreciated as a performer by all that many people. Despite this relative anonymity, Nyro is frequently cited as an influence by musicians as diverse as Todd Rundgren, Joni Mitchell, and Alice Cooper.

Laura Nyro died of ovarian cancer in 1997, at the age of 49.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Happiness is a warm biography... or not

The hot news around these parts lately is the umbrage taken by the family of our beloved local icon, Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, at a new biography of the late artist.

Schulz's widow and children say that Schulz and Peanuts, written by David Michaelis following seven years of interviews and research (in which the Schulzes actively participated), paints Schulz in an unfairly unflattering light — as a morose, emotionally distant, morally conflicted individual whose comic strip held the failings and foibles of his personal life before a funhouse mirror.

Needless to say, the Peanuts fanatic in me can't wait to read the book, which hits stores tomorrow. The tightwad in me, however, will hold out for the paperback.

I would not be at all shocked if Michaelis's book reveals Schulz more accurately than the artist's survivors will allow. After all, that's what good biographies do.

I also would not be at all shocked if the Schulz family had a point about the book focusing somewhat more on the darker details of Schulz's life and persona than on the happier aspects. After all, that's what best-selling biographies do.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to add much of an expert perspective on the matter. Although I saw Schulz in person on several occasions — we used to frequent the same bookstore, ironically enough — the entire scope of our interaction consisted of my mustering the courage to say, "Hi, Mr. Schulz," one day as we were both browsing the stacks, and his smiling and saying, "Hi," in return. The next couple of times we passed one another in the store, we exchanged that nod of recognition that acknowledged our common memory that we had once spoken.

Schulz had no idea that I starred as Snoopy in my high school's production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown during my senior year. I, being me, was far too humble to mention it. (A member of our cast actually went so far as to invite Schulz to take in one of our performances. He politely declined, but wished us much success. Rumor had it that he and his wife Jean did, in fact, slip in unobtrusively one evening and observe part of the show from the back row.)

I suspect that the real Charles Schulz was like most of us — a complex individual with positive and negative attributes, and qualities that could be either negative or positive, depending on the context. I'm sure that he was as lovable as his family nostalgically recalls, with feet of clay that they would prefer remain unadvertised.

In short, I think Schulz was probably altogether human.

I would expect the man who unleashed Charlie Brown on the world to be nothing less. And nothing more.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

He goes without saying

Monday, September 17, 2007

Brett Somers is so dead you couldn't revive her with a [blank]

Game show fans and TV nostalgia addicts everywhere are mourning the passing of longtime Match Game panelist Brett Somers, who died on Saturday at the age of 83.

The sassy Somers's death closely follows that of her frequent foil, Charles Nelson Reilly, who joined previously expired Match Game host Gene Rayburn in the hereafter last May.

You can always learn something by reading celebrity obituaries. For example, I knew that Somers was married to future The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E. star Jack Klugman in 1953, and that they went their separate ways after 20-odd years of wedded bliss (or something) in the early '70s. What I didn't know until today was that, despite their parting before disco was in fashion, Klugman and the tart-tongued comedienne were never legally divorced.

A third of a century is a long time to stay married to someone you don't plan on living with ever again.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Farley's last travel

I was deeply saddened — though not surprised — to read this morning about the death of longtime San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank, creator of the comic strips Farley and Elderberries.

Frank had been seriously ill for several months (the Chronicle published reruns of his strips in the interim), and only a few days ago issued a public announcement of his retirement from cartooning. It was the kind of announcement that you just knew would soon be followed by an obituary.

According to the newspaper, Frank was 64, and died from the effects of a brain tumor.

Farley was always one of the best reasons to read the Chronicle, especially since the passing of veteran columnist Herb Caen. The only strictly local comic strip in the country, Farley offered a daily dose of Bay Area flavor — often political, but even more often, merely whimsical — in Frank's inimitable, warmly humorous style.

When it debuted in the mid-'70s, Frank's strip was entitled Travels With Farley, and featured its mustachioed protagonist (a self-caricature of the artist) journeying the American countryside, often employed as a park ranger. A decade later, Frank changed the focus of the strip to San Francisco and its environs, and Farley continued to grace the Chronicle's pages daily (under its truncated title, and with its lead character now working as a newspaper reporter) for another 22 years.

Although Farley wasn't specifically a political cartoon, Frank enjoyed using the strip to tweak the foibles of local politicians. One of his favorite targets was former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, as seen in this strip from August 2003 (click the image to see the strip full size):

A dedicated student of regional lore, Frank served as a local historian for his home town of Sausalito as well as western Marin County for many years. He was active in environmental causes, and often donated his original cartoons to conservationist charities, such as the Marine Mammal Center.

Phil Frank is survived by his wife, two adult children, and the legion of characters he made an indelible part of Bay Area culture. I, along with his many other fans, will miss him — and Farley — greatly.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

A final wrinkle in time

I noted with a sharp twinge of nostalgia the passing on Thursday of novelist Madeleine L'Engle, whose Newbery Award-winning classic A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books in my lost-distant youth.

A Wrinkle in Time is far more than a mere children's tale, or a run-of-the-mill science fiction fantasy. It's a provocative musing on the nature of human existence in the universe, and on the power of love, and on the eternal struggle between good and evil — the latter represented in the book by the horrific Black Thing, personified by the disembodied brain known simply as IT.

I've never forgotten the impact that the strange adventures of Meg Murry and her psychically gifted little brother, Charles Wallace, had on me when I first read the book at age ten. I've also never forgotten L'Engle's detailed explanation of the word tesseract, which is, as anyone who's read the story knows, is "a wrinkle in time."

As I grew into adolescence, I read several of Ms. L'Engle's subsequent works, but never found in them the emotional resonance of A Wrinkle in Time. It's one of those effects that perhaps can only happen in that initial moment when one encounters bold new ideas. I encountered similar disappointment a few years ago when I attempted to watch Disney's made-for-television adaptation of Wrinkle, which served only to prove the point that some books can't be translated to film, no matter how hard one tries — and that sometimes not trying is better.

Ironically, I found myself leafing through a copy of A Wrinkle in Time the last time I was in Costco, perhaps a week or so ago. I wondered at the time whether the author was still living. The answer was Yes then, but No now.

I believe it was Mrs. Whatsit, or perhaps Mrs. Which, who taught me that.

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Candle in the wind

Ten years ago today, the world lost one of its real-life heroines: Diana, Princess of Wales.

I remember vividly the moment I heard the news. The girls and I had gone to see the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. We were playing a tape in the car as we drove home, so we didn't have the radio on. Just as we arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge, the tape ended, and I switched on KCBS, the local news radio station. For the first few moments, we didn't know whose death was being reported. Then, Diana's name was mentioned, and reality sank in.

Princess Diana and I were the same age — she was a only few months (July to December) older than I. In a way, I think, her mortality serves as a continual reminder of my own. To a very real degree, we are all "candles in the wind."

In tribute to "The People's Princess," I offer a few thoughtfully chosen selections from my gallery featuring the comics' Princess Diana of Themyscira, better known to the world as Wonder Woman. Comic Art Friday regulars will have seen most of these artworks before, but all deserve another look.

A pencil and ink sketch by Amazing Spider-Man artist Ron Garney:

Diana in a pensive pinup, by Silver Age veteran Dan Adkins:

Diana in patriotic mode, rendered by longtime Green Lantern artist Darryl Banks:

Diana in battle against a fearsome foe — a scenario conceived and penciled by Brazilian legend Al Rio, and embellished in ink by Suicide Squad artist Geof Isherwood:

Diana leading an airborne assault — pencils by rising star Michael Jason Paz, with inks again contributed by the great Geof Isherwood:

Diana standing strong in a classic pose, as portrayed by Wellington "The Well" Diaz:

Diana aloft, wielding her golden lasso — Geof Isherwood pencils and inks:

Diana and her invisible airplane, rendered in Golden Age style by one of the true masters of the art form, Ernie Chan:

Diana in moonlit wonder — a unique presentation by James E. Lyle:

In the words of songsmith Bernie Taupin:
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind...
Never fading with the sunset
When the rain set in.
And your footsteps will always fall here
Along England's greenest hills;
Your candle's burned out long before
Your legend ever will.
We still remember, Diana.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

The one-L lama, he's a priest

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of comic book artist Mike Wieringo, who, as noted in this space on Monday, passed suddenly and unexpectedly from this life earlier this week. The comics industry desperately needs a few dozen more talents like him.

From my earliest days as a comics reader, I have been fascinated with the so-called Golden Age of comics — that period beginning in the late 1930s and continuing into the early 1950s when superhero comics as we know them today first evolved. When I was a kid, there weren't as many avenues for obtaining old comics as there are now — not that I could have afforded them anyway — but I devoured reprint stories from the classic period whenever I could find them. Through reprints, I first discovered the glorious artwork of Lou Fine on The Ray and The Black Condor, Mac Raboy on Captain Marvel Jr. and The Green Lama, Lee Elias on the original Black Cat, and of course, Will Eisner on The Spirit. I also read voraciously any books I could find on comics history, especially Dick Lupoff's All in Color for a Dime and Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes.

My obsession with all things Golden Age is reflected in this Common Elements scenario, which brings together the aforementioned Green Lama and Marvel's master of the mystic arts, Dr. Strange. The artist here is James Ritchey III, whose 32-page unpublished story, The Green Lama: Man of Strength, can be viewed on his ComicSpace page.

The Green Lama was an intriguing character, not only because he gained his superheroic powers in a Tibetan lamasery — as did Dr. Strange; thus, the "common element" between the two — but also because he was one of the earliest positive, reasonably accurate portrayals of a practicing Buddhist in American popular culture. Created by author Kendell Crossen in 1940, the Lama first appeared in a pulp magazine, Double Detective, as a takeoff on the then-popular hero The Shadow. The Lama soon made his way into comics, where he starred in his own series in Prize Comics throughout the early '40s. Crossen, who wrote the character's comic book adventures in addition to the pulp novellas, scrupulously researched the Buddhist faith and wove its precepts and vernacular into his stories.

Recently, comics publisher Dynamite Entertainment announced an upcoming series entitled Superpowers, which will resurrect a slew of Golden Age heroes, including the Green Lama. Superstar artist Alex Ross and writer Jim Krueger will helm the series. I'm eager to see how this project will develop. I'll bet Dr. Strange is, too.

As Ogden Nash once wrote:
The one-L lama, he's a priest.
The two-L llama, he's a beast.
But I will bet a silk pajama
There isn't any three-L lllama.
And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Happy trails, Ringo

The news hit me like a sucker punch to the solar plexus when I fired up the Dell this morning:

Mike Wieringo died yesterday.

My favorite artist among comics' current superstars, Ringo — as he signed his work — apparently succumbed to a massive heart attack at his home. He was only 44 years old, a vegetarian, and a devoted fitness buff.

It's true: The only certainty in life is uncertainty.

Wieringo's run on Marvel's Fantastic Four, in partnership with writer Mark Waid, helped interest me in comics again after years of discouragement with the dark tone of many of today's superhero books. Ringo's manga-influenced style was light, agile, more than a little cartoony (his work often reminded me of C.C. Beck, the original Captain Marvel artist), and above all, charming. He breathed as much life and personality into his characters as any comics artist I've ever seen.

Just a few weeks ago, fellow collector Damon Owens and I were discussing the artists whom we most desperately wanted to commission. I didn't have to think twice about the first name on my list: Mike Wieringo. It saddens me deeply to know that now, I will never have the opportunity. I'll also miss Mike's terrific blog, where he posted lovely new sketches several times each week, along with his thoughts about his career, the comics industry, and life in general.

I only own one piece of Ringo's art (I'm kicking myself hard this morning over the Ringo Captain America sketch I sold a while back, when funds were tight), but I will treasure it always:

Recently, I finished reading Mike's latest work for Marvel, the delightful miniseries Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. A fun, old-school superhero story, it was one of the highlights of my comics year thus far. Late last year, Ringo illustrated a two-issue story in Ms. Marvel that I also enjoyed immensely. Pure, unadulterated fun is sometimes tough to come back in comic books these days, but you always could count on Mike Wieringo to deliver the goods.

My heart weeps today with Mike's family, friends, and legion of fans.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

I'll take Deceased Game Show Creators for $2000, Alex

I never had the pleasure of meeting Merv Griffin. But it's fair to say that Merv — who died this morning at the age of 82 following a battle with prostate cancer — had as direct and as profound an impact on my life as anyone else whom I never met.

He was, after all, responsible for the 15 minutes of fame that have been my calling card for nearly 20 years.

As has been widely chronicled, Merv Griffin created America's favorite quiz show, Jeopardy! in the 1960s. It's the modern version of the show, which began airing in 1984 and continues as a syndication juggernaut today, where I made my national television debut in 1988. Thanks to Merv's forward-thinking genius, an incredulous, fresh-faced kid got the chance to steal a soupçon of celebrity that has proven surprisingly difficult to escape.

Even though my Jeopardy! journey has returned me briefly to the spotlight four times since my original five-game run — the 1988 Tournament of Champions, ABC's Super Jeopardy! tournament in the summer of 1990, a special called Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains in 1998, and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions two years ago — I never found myself face to face with the man who started it all. The closest my ship and Merv's ever came to passing in the night was during the Super Jeopardy! taping, when the contestants were domiciled at the Beverly Hilton, which Merv had recently purchased. The place was a cacophony of renovation at the time — hordes of construction workers surrounded me at every turn, but not the elusive Mr. Griffin.

Merv sold Jeopardy! and its lowest-common-denominator companion property, Wheel of Fortune, to the Sony Pictures empire in the mid-'90s. Still, his stamp remained on the quiz show that helped build his legend, in the form of the oft-imitated theme music, which Merv composed.

I still have the letter, on Merv Griffin Enterprises stationery emblazoned with Merv's familiar namesake mythological creature logo, which first heralded my entry into game show history. I just wish I'd had the opportunity, just once, to shake the man's hand and let him know how much I've loved being a minuscule cog in his entertainment wheel.

That, and the $103K.

So long, Merv. Thanks for all the fun. (And for all the checks.) Wherever you are, be sure you phrase your responses in the form of a question.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

The Sage of Santa Clara (1931-2007)

It's a sad, sad day here in the Bay Area...

The Genius has died.

Bill Walsh, who guided the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl championships (all right, you nitpickers, three — but the team that won Super Bowl XXIV the year after Walsh's retirement was essentially the same team that had won with Walsh coaching the year previously) and six division titles, died this morning after a tough battle with leukemia. The architect of the fabled West Coast Offense was 75.

One could argue, with little fear of refutation, that Walsh was the most influential and innovative head coach in NFL history. Influential, as reflected in the legions of Walsh protégés (and second- and third-generation protégés) who followed the white-haired strategist to coaching prosperity. Innovative, in that the style of offensive football Walsh introduced completely changed the way the game is played, not just in the NFL, but also at the college and even the high school levels. Every significant coach who has drawn up a playbook in the past 25 years has borrowed something from Bill Walsh.

It's a cliché, especially in sports, to say of the recently deceased, "I never heard anyone say a bad word about the man." In Walsh, the cliché found its reality. His former players — including current and future Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, and Ronnie Lott — revered him. His former assistants credited him with their accomplishments. The media loved him, knowing that the Sage of Santa Clara could always be counted upon for a meaty soundbite.

In a lot of ways, Walsh was the antithesis of the stereotypical Knute Rockne/Vince Lombardi image of the head football coach. He was erudite, intellectual, and soft-spoken é at least, outside the locker room. He struck more the impression of a university philosophy professor than of a man who made his living drawing X's and O's on a whiteboard. Walsh also possessed a mischievous sense of humor: When the 49ers arrived in Detroit in January 1982 for their first-ever Super Bowl appearance, the hotel employee on hand to assist with their luggage seemed oddly familiar. It was the team's head coach, outfitted in a bellman's cap and uniform.

Because Walsh became so thoroughly identified with the offensive system he pioneered, many fans forgot — or perhaps never knew — that he began his career as a defensive coach at Cal-Berkeley and Stanford in the early 1960s. He changed his focus to offense when he was hired by Al Davis as an Oakland Raiders assistant coach in 1966.

It's also easy to forget, given Walsh's tremendous triumphs with the Niners, that he came to NFL head coaching relatively late — he was 47 or 48 when San Francisco lured him away from Stanford — and that his first two 49er teams finished with 2-14 and 6-10 records. Then, with a short, scrawny kid from Notre Dame leading the charge at quarterback, and a quartet of unproven defensive backs (third-year safety Dwight Hicks and his three rookie "Hot Licks" — Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, and Carlton Williamson) snatching interceptions from the air like they were cookies in a jar, Walsh's Niners went 13-3 in 1981, and never looked back.

Walsh was a progressive thinker, off the gridiron as well as on. He created the Minority Coaching Fellowship, a program that invited African American coaches to the 49ers' camp to gain NFL insight and experience. Current University of Washington head coach Tyrone Willingham was among the many who benefited from Walsh's desire to reach out. Today, the NFL's ongoing initiative on minority hiring stems from Walsh's leadership.

Thanks for all the marvelous memories, Coach. We'll miss you.

Our condolences to Coach Walsh's family, and the countless friends, colleagues, and fans who will continue to honor his legacy.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Musical Monday

It's a toasty July Monday here in Wine Country, and for whatever reason, everything in the news today reminds me of the lyrics of an old pop song. I'll show you what I mean...
  • Would Jesus wear a Rolex on His television show? For the second time in two weeks, someone who figured prominently in a research paper I wrote in college has shuffled off this mortal coil: first porn magnate Jim Mitchell; now Tammy Faye Messner, once better known as Tammy Faye Bakker, co-ringleader of the disgraced (no pun intended) TV ministry The PTL Club. And no, it wasn't the same paper — I wrote my senior thesis on televangelism.

  • You probably think this song is about you — don't you? Lindsay Lohan is bragging to friends about how she "teased those boys" in rehab by walking around the facility stark naked. At the same time, she's seeking legal assistance to ensure that nude photos taken by a former flame never see the light of day, fearing the pics might "ruin her career." Hey, Linds: Get over yourself. Soon. It's your asinine behavior — on and off set — that's going to slam-dunk your career, not a few salty Polaroids. Oh, and before you imagine that the entire world is eager to behold your bony frame in the altogether, I have a word for you: Cheeseburger.

  • I just had to look, having read the book. Were you among the legions hanging out on your local bookseller's doorstep at midnight Saturday, eager to snatch up your copy of the final installment in the Harry Potter saga? If so, then you, friend reader, need a life. Or a significant other. Or both. Rumor has it that J.K. Rowling is scouring the list of potential Potter titles I posted in this space a couple of years ago, just in case she gets a future urge to score another several million pounds.

  • Oh, Mandy — you came and you gave without taking. No one should be surprised that Criminal Minds star Mandy Patinkin abruptly quit the hit crime series just as filming was about to begin for the show's third season. Teleholics will recall that Patinkin pulled a similar stunt a decade ago, when he walked off the set of the medical drama Chicago Hope. Thomas Gibson, who costarred with Patinkin on both Minds and Hope, has got to be wondering what he did to deserve this. (Two words, Thomas: Jenna Elfman.)

  • Hello, Daddy, hello, Mom; I'm your ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb! Tony Award-winning stage actress Cherry Jones, probably most familiar to audiences as Matt Damon's mother in Ocean's Twelve, has signed to portray newly elected President Allison Taylor on the seventh season of 24. Let's hope she fares better as POTUS than Geena Davis did on the short-lived Commander in Chief. (Davis, incidentally, is rumored to be CBS's top choice to replace the aforementioned Mr. Patinkin.)

  • When you get that notion, put your backfield in motion. Speaking of POTUS, there was good news and bad news from the White House this past weekend. The good news: Doctors pronounced the polyps removed from President Bush's colon 100% cancer-free. The bad news: George W. will continue to be a cancer in everyone else's butt for another year and a half.

  • Well, I spent some time in the Mudville Nine, watchin' it from the bench. A truly sad story from minor league baseball: Mike Coolbaugh, first base coach for the Tulsa Drillers — the Colorado Rockies' AA affiliate — was struck in the head and killed yesterday by a line drive off the bat of teammate Tino Garcia. Coolbaugh played briefly in the majors earlier in this decade, with both the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. He had taken the coaching position with the Drillers only three weeks ago. He leaves behind a wife and two children, with another baby due in October. Tragic.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Not another re-Pete


I just this moment read about the unexpected passing of longtime Bay Area news anchor Pete Wilson at the age of 62.

Wilson — not to be confused with the former California governor of the same name — underwent hip replacement surgery at Stanford University Medical Center on Thursday. Apparently, he suffered a massive heart attack during the operation. After a day on life support, Wilson died late last evening.

A multiple Emmy and Peabody Award-winning journalist, Wilson was an inescapable fixture on Bay Area television for three decades — most recently on KGO, the San Francisco ABC affiliate. Before joining KGO, he enjoyed a lengthy run on KRON, which at the time was NBC's Bay Area outlet. When NBC shifted its contract to another station in the market, Wilson was one of the numerous personalities who departed KRON for greener pastures.

In addition to his TV anchoring duties, Wilson hosted a popular talk show on KGO 810 NewsTalk radio, where he gained a reputation for curmudgeonly, shoot-from-the-lip commentary. Last year on his show, Wilson harshly criticized San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who is gay, for adopting a child in partnership with a lesbian friend. Peter later apologized for the tone — but not the content — of his remarks.

Whether people admired or despised him — and he was exactly the sort of outspoken, larger-than-life personality who generated such impassioned perspectives — everyone who watched TV or listened to talk radio in northern California knew Pete Wilson. Even if they sometimes mixed him up with the Republican ex-governor.

Wilson is survived by his wife and son. We here at SSTOL extend our condolences to his family, friends, colleagues, and fans.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

My date with the Mitchell Brothers

Someone said to me recently, "The older I get, the more dead people I know."

Although it would be a stretch to say that I knew the notorious Mitchell Brothers, Jim and Artie, I did meet them once.

Now that Jim has joined his brother in the Great Beyond — Jim having sent Artie to his demise with a rifle bullet back in 1991, then passing away himself this past weekend, just a few miles from my house — I can regale you with my sordid tale.

Actually, the tale itself isn't all that sordid.

In 1983, when I was a student in the Broadcast Communication Arts Department at San Francisco State University, I once interviewed the Mitchell Brothers in their native habitat, the world-famous O'Farrell Theater.

Here's how it all went down. (Figuratively speaking, of course.)

When I was assigned to write a term paper on alternative media, I thought it might be interesting to do a piece on the pornography industry. Since the Mitchell Brothers were headquartered right across town, this intrepid budding journalist called the O'Farrell and asked whether Jim and/or Artie would be willing to give a college kid a few minutes of their time to further his... umm... education. (What could it hurt, right? All they could say was "No.")

Not only were the brothers willing, they invited me over to their digs to chat with them live and in person. So, I hopped the Muni Metro "M" line to downtown San Francisco, and hiked the few blocks up to the O'Farrell. True to their word, Jim and Artie had given my name to the guardian of the front door, and I was directed upstairs to their office. I didn't even have to pay the cover charge.

For two pillars of the smut business, Jim and Artie Mitchell seemed astonishingly normal — two regular Joes from the East Bay who had made themselves a modicum of fame (and, I suppose, a few bucks, though they were reluctant to discuss the actual finances of their empire) producing sex films and running their glorified strip joint. (Although there were porno movies on view in the main screening room, the majority of the O'Farrell's clientele appeared to be more interested in the various live nude performances available.)

Jim did most of the talking during our interview session, Artie being more intent upon chatting up (and quaffing brewskis with) the constant stream of scantily garbed female employees who wandered in and out of the office during my visit. Since my paper was about media, our conversation focused on the Mitchell Brothers' film career, hallmarked by the infamous Behind the Green Door, starring former Ivory Snow cover girl Marilyn Chambers. (Sadly, Ms. Chambers — with whose softcore oeuvre I was intimately familiar, from late-night cable TV viewing — was not on the premises at the time.)

I was surprised to learn from Jim that the Mitchells had produced what was at the time the most expensive porn film on record — a magnum opus entitled Sodom and Gomorrah, which, according to Jim (no relation to the much-later sitcom starring John Belushi's little brother), had cost upward of a million dollars. I couldn't understand then how one could spend a million bucks shooting a cheap sex flick, but I'm just reporting what the man told me.

What struck me most about the Mitchells (Jim Mitchell, at least) was that they seemed to fancy themselves true cinematic pioneers. Make no mistake, they understood that their bread and butter was in showcasing nekkid people doing various permutations of the procreative act, but they considered their works legitimate art. At least that was their story, and they stuck pretty closely to it.

I chatted with Jim and the semi-present Artie for roughly 45 minutes — taking copious notes as rapidly as my fevered hand would scribble — before taking my leave. They graciously offered me the run of the O'Farrell's entertainment offerings for the rest of the afternoon, but I begged off. (At least that's my story, and I'm sticking to that, too.) I then ducked out into the cold gray San Francisco daylight and scrambled back to the nearest Metro station before anyone I knew could see me.

What happened between the Mitchell Brothers several years later has been well chronicled in the press, as well as in a 2000 film entitled Rated X, starring real-life Hollywood siblings Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen as Jim and Artie.

I, of course, saw no hint of discord during my brief interface with Jim and Artie. All I saw was a couple of guys who seemed to be serious about their chosen profession... and who appeared to be having tons of fun surrounding themselves with unclad women. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) They were unfailingly pleasant and polite to the nervous, goggle-eyed college kid who stumbled into their establishment one breezy afternoon.

And now, I suppose, they're reunited.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

So long, Shooter

"Shocked" is perhaps one of the most overused words in the English language. It is, however, the word that most accurately describes my emotional reaction to hearing the news that Rod Beck, the Giants' star relief pitcher throughout most of the 1990s, died yesterday at the age of 38.

The cause of Beck's death is unknown at this writing. Although it's too early to speculate, it's been widely reported that the former relief ace has battled drug addiction in recent years.

Beck was one of my favorite Giants in my 30-plus years as a San Francisco partisan. "Shooter," as Beck was known to his teammates, was one of the great characters of the game. He was as unlikely a professional athlete as I've ever seen — a mullet-wearing, heavyset fellow sporting a shaggy Fu Manchu 'stache, he smoked like the proverbial chimney and looked as though he consumed Quarter Pounders and Heineken for breakfast. Still, he electrified Candlestick Park whenever he took the mound in the late innings. Beck didn't throw the hardest fastball in the majors, but he combined a deceptively wild delivery motion with an intimidating on-field demeanor to become one of the game's most feared closers.

Although he's most frequently remembered as a Giant due to his seven-year tenure in San Francisco, Beck actually notched his highest save total (51) in 1998 as a Chicago Cub. With the Giants, Beck made three National League All-Star teams and finished eighth in the voting for the 1994 Cy Young Award. He posted six consecutive seasons (1992-98) in which he recorded 28 or more saves. His career total of 286 saves ranks 22nd all-time.

Beck garnered some news coverage a couple of years ago when he attempted to make a comeback with the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate in Iowa. During that season, he lived in an RV in the parking lot of the stadium, and made his movable domicile a hangout for fellow players.

During his years in San Francisco, Beck and his wife were active in the community, lending their time and celebrity to a host of charitable events, especially in the area of pediatric AIDS. He always seemed as affable off the field as he was awe-inspiring on it.

Thirty-eight is far, far too young.

My sincere condolences go out to Beck's family, friends, and former teammates.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Out of time!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the late Don Herbert, better known to generations of teleholics as "Mr. Wizard." Herbert's 1950s show, Watch Mr. Wizard, pioneered the concept that television for kids could be educational without being either condescending or boring. In the '80s, Herbert returned to the tube on Nickelodeon, with Mr. Wizard's World, bringing his genial blend of professorial wisdom and whiz-bang science to a whole new audience.

Had there been no Mr. Wizard, we would never have known Beakman's World or Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Don Herbert made being a science nerd cool — which, for those of us who are nerds, is no small accomplishment. We'll miss you, Mr. Wizard.

The funny thing about my Common Elements art gallery — the one in which comic artists pair up unrelated superheroes who have some characteristic in common — is that on occasion, the characters involved share more than one "common element." Sometimes, in fact, there are several common elements in the piece that I didn't even consider when I developed the concept.

Take, for example, this newly arrived gem from the pen of longtime comics stalwart Bob Layton. It features Booster Gold, one of the central figures in DC Comics' recently concluded maxiseries 52, alongside the legendary Captain America. (You can click the pic to see it in greater detail.)

When this concept came to me, I had one — and really, only one — Common Element in mind between Booster and Cap. Both heroes, although their adventures are set in the present day, began their careers in other time periods: Captain America in the 1940s during World War II, Booster Gold in the 25th century. Hence the title I assigned to the concept: "Out of Time."

From the beginning, I wanted Bob Layton to draw this Common Element. Layton is best known in comic circles as "the Iron Man guy," thanks to his lengthy association with the Golden Avenger as both artist and writer, often in partnership with scripter David Michelinie. Bob's also recognized as one of the most gifted inkers in the industry. From my perspective, it's his overall artistic talent — penciling, inking, and conceptual design — that makes him great.

When the opportunity arose to commission Bob, I jumped at the chance to turn him loose on my "out of time" idea. As I was rounding up pictures of Cap and Booster to send to Bob as reference, I noted (to my surprise, given that I hadn't seen it before) that the two heroes shared an even more obvious commonality than the one I'd envisioned: the five-pointed star motif emblazoned on their rippling pectorals. How could I have missed that? I don't know, but I did, until I had the pictures of each character on the screen in front of me.

Since I added the scan of this artwork to my permanent gallery at Comic Art Fans, other collectors have pointed out additional connections between Booster and Cap. For one, both are blond. For another, both were recently killed off in their respective storylines — Booster, though, has already been "resurrected," and I don't know a single comics fan who doesn't believe that Captain America will make a triumphant return as well.

I also thought of one more similarity. Both Cap and Booster, at one point in their careers, abandoned their more familiar code names and costumes in favor of a temporary superhero identity. Captain America, disillusioned by the Watergate scandal, shrugged off his iconic red-white-and-blue for several months in the mid-1970s, in the guise of the more iconoclastic Nomad. During the year-long events of 52, Booster Gold — who at the time was believed to be dead — became the mysterious Supernova, whose real identity wasn't revealed (to the characters or the audience) until late in the series' run. (Astute readers, however, had solved the puzzle long before Supernova unmasked.) Someday, I'd like to team Nomad and Supernova in another Common Elements commission that ties these threads together.

Speaking of Booster Gold, the current issue of Back Issue magazine (#22) features an excellent article about Booster and his erstwhile partner, the Blue Beetle. If you look closely, you'll see my Booster pinup — penciled by Booster's creator Dan Jurgens, and inked by veteran Joe Rubinstein — smiling back at you on page 78.

Thanks to Back Issue editor Michael Eury for using my contribution!

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

How's that for a topper?

What? Charles Nelson Reilly is dead? I didn't even know that he was sick.

What? Charles Nelson Reilly was gay? I didn't even know... well, yeah, I did, too. (Didn't we all?)

My earliest memories of Sir Charles, like those of many of my generation, date back to the '60s sitcom The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, wherein Reilly played fussbudgety Claymore Gregg, the heir and landlord, respectively, to the series' two title characters. And of course, like many addicted to Saturday morning TV in the '70s, I recall Reilly eking out a living in embarrassing kidvid dreck like Lidsville (which, though beneath Reilly's considerable talents, was actually enjoyable) and Uncle Croc's Block (the less said about which, the better).

But mostly, I remember Charles for his seemingly unlimited witty ripostes as a game show panelist, verbally sparring with Gene Rayburn and Brett Somers on Match Game, or trading double entendres with the likes of Rose Marie on Hollywood Squares.

Which, when one thinks about it, is rather a shame, because not many people who laughed at the flamboyant bon vivant in the Coke-bottle glasses and Day-Glo ascot realized that the guy was a Tony Award-winning stage actor (for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1962) or a Tony-nominated theatrical director (for The Gin Game, 1997). All of which, he was.

Your fans will miss you, Chuck. Count me among them.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007


To paraphrase the late Lewis Grizzard: Elvis is dead, and I'm feeling a bit scattered myself.

With everything that's going on around here — both the stuff you know about and the stuff you don't, for which you ought to be eternally grateful — my perpetually diffuse focus is even more fuzzy than usual. So let's go the quick-hit route.

Now watch the colortinis as they fly through the air:
  • Brickbats and boo-hisses to the moron who ruined my Tuesday evening commute to chorus rehearsal for the foreseeable future, by dumping 250 yards of molten steel, concrete, and asphalt on my section of the McArthur Maze. Nice going, ace.

  • Did I mention that he's a convicted criminal with a history of heroin abuse? Why am I not surprised?

  • Freeway disasters aside, it's a fine time for sports fans here by the Bay:

    • The Warriors, who haven't seen the NBA playoffs without satellite TV since the early days of the Clinton Administration, are poised to dump the Dallas Mavericks and advance to Round Two.

    • The offensively anemic Giants have turned their once-flagging fortunes around, behind the smoking bat of Barry "U.S." Bonds (742 career home runs, and counting) and the hottest starting rotation in the major leagues — the other Barry (Zito), the two Matts (Cain and Morris), my homie from Pepperdine (Noah Lowry), and the resurrected Russ "Lazarus" Ortiz.

    • The Sharks are threatening to make a run at the Stanley Cup. (Say it with me: It's soccer on ice, with sticks.)

    • The A's are... well, nobody cares.

  • While the universe spirals into entropy (why is it so hot? and why are we in this handbasket?), high school students in Charleston, West Virginia, are ticked off because their educational administrators won't allow them to simulate sexual intercourse on the dance floor. Says senior Crystal Lucas of the school board's ban on booty popping, grinding, bumping, humping, hunching, goosing, freaking, and dirty dancing: "It makes me not look forward to my senior prom." Oh, to be young and feckless. (Look it up in your Funk and Wagnalls.)

  • A sad note: Sax player and bandleader Tommy Newsom, for years the butt of Johnny Carson's ridicule on The Tonight Show, has passed away from liver cancer at the age of 78. After all those years of merely looking dead, Tommy now really is.

  • Britney Spears has canceled tonight's comeback performance, scheduled for L.A.'s Forty Deuce nightclub. According to reports, the concert's promoters determined that after several rehearsals, the Queen of Trailer Trash Pop "wasn't quite ready." (Translated: Not sober enough to remember lyrics, or to avoid an embarrassing tumble off the edge of the stage.)

  • Four years ago today, President Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared the war in Iraq over. "Mission accomplished," remember? "The United States and our allies have prevailed." Funny how many brave men and women we keep losing, in a war that ended four years ago. Then again, it's really not funny at all.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Quiz Kid loses his final match

Sad news today for Bay Area game show fanatics.

Daniel Barclay, a young man who dazzled viewers of the local cable program Quiz Kids a few years back, was found dead on a Cape Cod beach last Friday, the apparent victim of a rafting accident.

Quiz Kids, which airs on San Francisco's KRON-4 on Saturday afternoons, pits teams of high school brainiacs against one another in the format of the venerable G.E. College Bowl program. Although I usually hold my own as a home viewer — clinging desperately to my rapidly fading Jeopardy! cred — some of these Quiz Kids are scary smart.

Daniel Barclay may have been one of the brightest youngsters ever featured on the show. Certainly, he was among the most memorable.

During the years when Daniel led the Menlo-Atherton High squad, his team was unbeatable. Menlo-Atherton won the Quiz Kids championship four years running, besting a field of 40-plus rival schools. More often than not, Daniel came on like a one-man encyclopedic wrecking crew, pouncing on question after question with catlike precision and Rutteresque knowledge. As Quiz Kids master of ceremonies Brad Friedman — "the best host on the West Coast," as he is introduced each week — told the San Francisco Chronicle:
He knew when I started a question exactly where I was going before I had the words out. It was eerie. Other kids have come to do that since, but no one has come close to doing it as well as he did.
Few things in life are more tragic than the loss of a young life that held so much promise for a brilliant future. As a father — and as a fan — my heart breaks for the Barclay family.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

A real-life hero: Mario Kawika DeLeon, Sgt., U.S. Army

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of a hometown hero.

On Monday of this week, Mario Kawika DeLeon, a 26-year-old U.S. Army sergeant from Rohnert Park, California, lost his life to a sniper's bullet while on patrol in Baghdad. Kawika — Sgt. DeLeon was commonly called by his middle name, "David" in Hawaiian — was a member of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, known in military lore as "The Big Red One." He graduated from Casa Grande High School — archrival of my alma mater, Rancho Cotate High — and attended Santa Rosa Junior College, where my daughter KM will be a student in the fall.

I didn't know Kawika DeLeon personally, but my dear friend Donna e-mailed me to say that her parents and his were close friends, back in the day. Donna herself worked for a time with Kawika's mother, Barbara. Thus, aside from the fact that we probably rubbed elbows at Wal-Mart or Costco at some time or other, Sgt. DeLeon and I are separated by a mere two degrees.

To paraphrase John Donne, the bell tolls for me.

According to his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, Kawika was a fan of the Star Wars film franchise, the animated TV series ThunderCats, and X-Men comics. I don't have any ThunderCats art — a generation older than Kawika, I wasn't watching many cartoons in the '80s. Instead, I'll share from my art collection some images of my own favorite feline hero, the Black Panther, and my best-beloved among the X-Men, Storm, in Kawika's honor.

The quotes below are excerpted from the Chronicle's obit by Steve Rubenstein.

Mario DeLeon loved the old "Star Wars" movies, fast cars, hip-hop music, shooting pool and hanging out with his pals in Rohnert Park.

He loved his wife, Erika, and his 2-year-old son, Keoni.

And, in February, he told them he'd be home soon from his Army tour of duty in Iraq.
"He kept saying, 'Nothing's going to happen to me, nothing's going to happen to me,' Erika DeLeon said.

"He was fearless. In his mind, he was so strong and so brave. He was so sure of himself. He said he was coming back, and so we all knew he was coming back. That's how he was."
A tall, large man with what one friend described as a "goofy grin," DeLeon enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school and served for four years, including a tour in Afghanistan.

After attending college for a while, he served two years in the Air Force Reserve before rejoining the Army last year. He was sent to Iraq over the winter, and spent most of his time on patrol in Baghdad.
"He loved making everyone laugh," his wife said. "Nobody could make people laugh like Kawika. He lighted up everyone's day."

He drove a 15-year-old Nissan and he was pretty good at the motor sport technique known as "drifting," or driving sideways in a controlled slide. He and his friends enjoyed watching drifting competitions, reading car magazines, and talking about the best pro drivers and the latest tricks.
In the evenings, the DeLeons would hunker down on the sofa and watch a "Star Wars" movie — he had the complete set — or episodes of the old "ThunderCats" cartoon show, in which giant human cats battled the Mutants to save the innocents on a planet called Third Earth. In his 20s, DeLeon still enjoyed the animated shows and "X-Men" comic books he treasured as a kid.

"At first I didn't like watching those shows," his wife said. "But he was so passionate about it. He'd say, 'But Babe, everyone has to watch it.' So I did. And now I'm wearing the 'ThunderCats' sweater."
Above all, Erika DeLeon said, her husband was a gentleman.

"Sweet, polite, kind. I never met anyone like him. I wanted his son to grow up like him. Now all he has is pictures."

He is survived by his wife and son, by his mother, Barbara, and by his brothers, Gabe and Bruce. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Rest in peace, Kawika. Your sacrifice humbles us.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

They oughta shoot somebody's eye out

Benjamin "Bob" Clark, the movie director who gave the world the holiday classic A Christmas Story — as well as the infamous romp about libidinous teenagers invading a Florida brothel known as Porky's — died early morning in an automobile crash in southern California. Clark's 22-year-old son Ariel, a budding jazz composer who studied music at Santa Monica College, also lost his life in the incident.

The drunk driver who killed both Clarks, 24-year-old Hector Velazquez-Nava, escaped with minor injuries.

That's the kind of news that burns my biscuits.

I consider myself a forgiving individual, but I hold no empathy for intoxicated drivers who kill or injure innocent people. In my view, vehicular manslaughter resulting from alcohol or drugs should be prosecuted and penalized to the same level as first-degree murder. If you're enough of a heartless barbarian that you would rather risk the lives of other human beings than call a taxi, society is better off with you permanently behind bars.

The reason drunk drivers are not so prosecuted and penalized can be directly attributed to the power of the liquor lobby. That, and many leading politicians — including a certain presently serving Commander-in-Chief — are among the folks most likely to grab the steering wheel while under the influence. Big money and runaway egotism make for dangerous bedfellows.

It would be unkind to use this moment as an opportunity to point out that, with the exception of the aforementioned A Christmas Story, Bob Clark directed a raft of heinously bad movies, including the aforementioned Porky's (and Rhinestone, and Turk 182, and From the Hip, and Loose Cannons, and Baby Geniuses). So I'll refrain.

Instead, I'll mention the one movie in the Bob Clark oeuvre that I really did enjoy: Murder by Decree, which pitted Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson (played here by two veteran scenery-chewers, Christopher Plummer and James Mason) against Jack the Ripper. If you like mysteries, or Holmes, or both, you owe it to yourself to scrounge up the DVD of this film, and check it out. It's a genuine classic, featuring supporting appearances by such talents as Donald Sutherland, Genevieve Bujold, David Hemmings, Susan Clark, and Anthony Quayle. (Fascinating background trivia: Clark originally cast Peter O'Toole and Laurence Olivier as Holmes and Watson respectively, but the two actors hated one another with such a passion that the director ended up having to replace them both just to get the movie made.)

We here at SSTOL extend our condolences to the Clark family upon their devastating double loss.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Costumes by Frederick's of Hyboria

Is it Friday already? Great Caesar's ghost, it's been a challenging week.

But, as we all know, there's nothing that perks up the spirits like some gorgeous comic art. So let's get to it.

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of comics artist Marshall Rogers, who passed away unexpectedly this week at the age of 57.

Although Rogers illustrated a diverse range of comic book heroes — from the Silver Surfer to Mister Miracle — during his four-decade career, he'll be mostly remembered for his work on various Batman titles. Several bloggers have opined this week that Rogers's interpretation of Batman is second only to that of the great Neal Adams. Myself, I'd rank the late Jim Aparo next after Adams among Batman artists, but Rogers was indeed awfully good. I'd also place his take on Doctor Strange right after Frank Brunner's and Geof Isherwood's.

My heartfelt condolences to Marshall's family, and to his legion of fans.

In one of Mad Magazine's Christmas carol parodies many moons ago, the following couplet appeared in the lyrics (by writer Frank Jacobs, if memory serves) to a twisted rewrite of "Deck the Halls":
There's no reason to be nervous;
You can trust the Postal Service.
I've quoted that line facetiously more times than I can count, and it finally came back to bite me.

A few weeks ago, I received in the mail a package of new art from the preternaturally talented MC Wyman. Somewhere between Wyman's home in Pennsylvania and mine in sunny California, the minions of the USPS had dunked the package in water. I don't just mean that the package had gotten a tiny bit damp — the doggoned thing was sufficiently waterlogged to have survived a battle between Aquaman and the Sub-Mariner. Both the packing material and the artworks inside were thoroughly soaked.

As fortune would have it, Wyman's pictures sailed through the ordeal unblemished, although the art boards on which they were drawn are irreparably warped. Eventually, I'll commission one of my favorite inkers to transfer the images to new material. But for the time being, these will do.

Some time back, the proprietor of my friendly neighborhood comic book shop posed a rather startling question to me: "Why don't you have any Red Sonja art?" The query was occasioned by the fact that I'm one of the shop's most ardent Red Sonja readers, as well as a collector of original artwork featuring most of my other favorite comics heroines. But I didn't have a single Red Sonja in my galleries.

After I fumbled for a snappy answer that never came, I immediately decided that this inadvertent omission had to be addressed. Thanks to MC Wyman, it now has been. Kathy, this one's for you.

An intriguing dollop of Red Sonja history: Most comics readers presume that Red Sonja was created by Robert E. Howard, the auteur behind Conan the Barbarian. In fact, although Marvel Comics writer-editor Roy Thomas retrofitted the name of a Howard character (the differently spelled Red Sonya of Rogatino, who carried pistols instead of a sword) to his blade-slinging Hyrkanian heroine, Red Sonja as we know and adore her today was entirely the creation of Thomas and legendary artist Barry Windsor-Smith. Artists Esteban Maroto and John Buscema share the credit for devising Sonja's technically implausible, yet undeniably fetching, scale-mail costume.

Today, Sonja's monthly adventures — along with a plethora of associated miniseries and single-issue titles — are published by Dynamite Entertainment, with writer Michael Avon Oeming and artist Mel Rubi forming the key creative team.

And, since it's humanly impossible to have too many sword-packing women in metal brassieres, here's Wyman's take on another of my favorite heroines from 1970s Marvel, the Valkyrie.

That's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

WonderCon addendum

Given that I only have time and synaptic energy to generate an abbreviated Comic Art Friday, let's dedicate today's post to the late Calvert DeForest, who passed away this week at age 85.

The diminutive DeForest became an American cultural icon as geeky, brassy-voiced Larry "Bud" Melman on David Letterman's NBC late night show. I'm not usually a fan of gimmick performers, but DeForest's gimmick worked — I always got a kick out of the guy.

RIP, Larry "Bud."

As remarkable as was the haul of newly commissioned comic art that followed me home from WonderCon three weeks ago, said haul wasn't officially completed until this past weekend. Brent Anderson, cocreator (with writer Kurt Busiek) of the postmodern superhero reimagining Astro City, completed this Black Panther drawing on the third day of the convention. Brent, who lives right here in Sonoma County, generously arranged to hand-deliver the finished art to my local comic shop last Saturday. The results more than make up for the brief wait.

I chose Brent to create the latest addition to my T'Challa gallery because my earliest recollection of his work stems from his stint as the artist on Marvel's jungle action series Ka-Zar in the late 1970s. As you can see, he hasn't lost the feeling.

In the late '80s, Brent also drew one of the most unusual superhero series ever published by either of the Big Two: Strikeforce: Morituri, the bizarre yet intriguing saga of a project to turn human volunteers into superheroes — a process which, unfortunately, also made the volunteers terminally ill. (The motto of the project was the Latin phrase Morituri te salutant -- "We who are about to die salute you.")

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

They're dropping like flies

Death must be in the air these days, and I don't believe it's just the stench of human decomp wafting over from Abby Chapel of the Redwoods.

Let's pause for a moment to reflect on some of the passages we've noted recently...
  • When wine mogul Ernest Gallo, the 297th richest person in America, died last week at the ripe old vintage of 97, my thoughts turned to his younger brother Joseph, who passed away about three weeks earlier.

    Joseph Gallo owned a cheesemaking enterprise known today as Joseph Farms. (Good stuff, as stock American-made cheese goes. We buy Joseph Farms products quite often.) Originally, the company was called Joseph Gallo Cheese. Ernest and Julio Gallo, however, didn't like the fact that their junior brother was slapping the family name on his dairy output, so they sued Little Joe over the rights to the Gallo moniker... and won. Thus Joseph Gallo — despite being every bit the Gallo his elder siblings were, genetically speaking — was legally estopped from using his own name on his cheese.

    Blood may be thicker than water, but wine is thicker than either.

  • Wow... Richard Jeni. There's been any number of comedians whose lives played out like horror headlines waiting to be written — Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze, Sam Kinison, and Mitch Hedberg are just a handful of the names that leap to mind — but Jeni didn't seem like that kind of guy.

    Jeni always seemed amazingly normal for a comic, and his wry observations about life were earnest and easily to identify with. Whatever his demons were, they didn't surface in his comedy to any pathological degree.

    Maybe that would have helped.

  • Most casual comic books readers likely never knew who writer Arnold Drake was. To the cognoscenti, Drake was a legend — an iconoclastic creative talent who specialized in unique ideas and good old-fashioned fun.

    In the realm of superhero comics, Drake's best-known creations reflected his wonky sensibility: Doom Patrol, which was kind of like the X-Men as seen through a funhouse mirror, and Deadman, the bizarre tale of a murdered circus acrobat who wandered the earth hunting his killer. But Drake was more than just a scribe of muscular, slam-bang fantasy — he also invented a clever comedy series called Stanley and His Monster that in many elements prefigured the later Calvin and Hobbes. Drake also wrote dozens of issues of Little Lulu.

    I sat in on Drake's delightful showcase panel at WonderCon two years ago. The man knew where all the industry's bodies were buried, and he knew how to tell a great story. I'm grateful now that I took the opportunity to see him in person while he was still among us. He was a genuine treasure.

  • I felt a twinge of sadness when I heard some time ago that the Stardust Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas had shuttered. That twinge hit again as I read the news this morning about the old joint being imploded to make room for a new megadevelopment. By the time of its demise, the Stardust wasn't the swankiest joint on the Strip, but it sure held a history.

    KJ and I enjoyed a terrific evening at the Stardust some years back. We dined at the 'Dust's resident outlet of Tony Roma's Ribs, then caught a pretty decent production show called Enter the Night. Of course, the show that made the Stardust famous, Lido de Paris, was long gone by then, its stars Siegfried and Roy having jumped ship for the Mirage several years earlier. But we had a nice time anyway.

    I'm told that the Stardust's legendary sign, at one time the largest display on the Strip, has been preserved by the Neon Museum in Vegas. As for the Stardust itself, the lights are out, and the party's over.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

We ain't got no body

And now, this public service announcement:

My personal assistant Abby disavows any connection with the proprietors of Abby Chapel of the Redwoods Mortuary, located in our fair burg.

Said proprietors find themselves in all manner of hot water of late, after our dutiful local law enforcement officials discovered nine decomposing corpses that the mortuary had stored in an unrefrigerated warehouse.

If you know anything about the atmospheric and olfactory effects of decomposing corpses, you can probably guess how this little problem was uncovered.

The mortuary was attempting to use a swamp cooler to keep the warehouse temperature sufficiently low, and had sprinkled the bodies with carpet freshening powder to cover any untoward aroma. The stench of decaying human remains suggests exactly how well the swamp cooler and Carpet Fresh accomplished their dubious task.

Our city officials are working with the California State Cemetery and Funeral Bureau to pull Abby Chapel's operating license.

My personal assistant Abby declines any further comment.

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Reason to Despise Modern Comics #25

Captain America, dead?

Yeah, right. They said that about Supergirl, too — 22 years ago.

Needless to say, when I made my weekly pilgrimage to my local comic shop, I did not waste four bucks on Captain America #25.

In my opinion, the Captain America who surrendered like a whipped puppy at the conclusion of Marvel's recent Civil War miniseries, and then was gunned down like a rabid dog in the just-released comic mentioned above, was not really Captain America anyway. I'd have shot that loser myself. The real Cap always went down fighting.

Instead, I prefer to imagine Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada dressed in a Red Skull costume, thus:

There will always be a Captain America.

There may not, however, always be a comic book industry, if they keep pulling stupid publicity stunts like this.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

A "good girl" great is gone

Today's Comic Art Friday notes with regret the passing of award-winning comic artist Bob Oksner, who died last Sunday at the ripe old age of 90.

Although Oksner worked on a number of superhero books during his five-decade career in comics — including Supergirl and Shazam! — he'll be best remembered by aficionados for his prolific work on DC Comics' comedy titles during the 1950s and '60s, especially The Adventures of Jerry Lewis (originally The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, before the duo's fabled breakup) and The Adventures of Bob Hope. Oksner also cocreated the classic series Angel and the Ape, about an unusual crimefighting partnership — a gorgeous, platinum blonde female detective, and a talking gorilla who drew superhero comics.

In addition to his monumental comedic talents and slick, accessible linework, Oksner was also legendary for his deftness at rendering the feminine form. Translated: If you wanted an artist to draw cute, buxom babes, Oksner was your guy. I dare say that the long-running popularity of the Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis comics had less to do with readers' affection for those two comedy giants (although I have it on good authority that The Adventures of Jerry Lewis sold particularly well in France) than with the fact that Oksner routinely populated both books with dozens of attractive, often minimally clad women.

Hey, you don't really think guys read Angel and the Ape just for the talking gorilla, do you?

In honor of Bob Oksner, let's look at a couple of modern examples of what we refer to in the comics biz as "good girl" art. Both of the following pencil drawings are the work of a talented Brazilian artist, Jorge Correa Jr., best known in the States as the artist on the Avatar Press comics based on the TV series Stargate SG-1. As you can see in this Wonder Woman artwork, Jorge knows his way around a classic pinup-style image.

In this pensive portrait of jungle heroine Shanna the She-Devil, Correa shows his flexibility, combining his human figure artistry with a little dinosaur action.

As a point of clarification, we'll note that Correa's Shanna is the recently reimagined version created by Frank Cho — no slouch in the "good girl" art department himself, by the way — and not the more familiar original, who first appeared in the early 1970s. Old-school Shanna or new, I think Bob Oksner would approve.

When DC phased out its humor titles in the early '70s, Oksner moved on to superhero books, often those featuring young female protagonists. His version of Supergirl is recalled quite fondly by those of us with an affinity for the Maid of Steel. I'll wager he'd have enjoyed this sweet sketch by one of my favorite Marvel artists of the '90s, MC Wyman.

RIP, Mr. Oksner. Your work — and especially your wonderful ladies — will live on.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lights out, DJ

I was both surprised and saddened to learn this afternoon about the sudden death earlier today of former NBA star Dennis Johnson, at the age of 52.

Apparently, DJ had just concluded a practice with the Austin Toros, the team he coached in the NBA's D-League, when he collapsed. Paramedics worked for 23 minutes to revive him, but were unsuccessful.

I never met Dennis Johnson, but we attended the same university three years apart. I certainly heard a great deal about DJ during my years at Pepperdine. When I arrived in Malibu in the fall of 1979, Johnson had already been a star with the Seattle SuperSonics for three seasons, having just led the Sonics to the NBA Championship against the Washington Bullets in the spring of that year. But at Pepperdine, he was still "our guy."

As the biggest major-sports athlete Pep had produced to that point, DJ's name was still whispered in reverent tones around campus whenever Pepperdine basketball came up for discussion. After only one season at the 'Bu, he'd left an impression as one heck of a hoopster, taking Pep two rounds deep into March Madness in '76. When the Pepperdine Athletics Hall of Fame was unveiled at Firestone Fieldhouse in the early '80s, DJ was in its sophomore group of inductees. Not a bad feat for a guy who opted for the pro draft after only one year.

When I think about DJ as a player, I think of him primarily for his tenacious defense. Many were the guards who credited Dennis as the toughest guy they had to face off against. But he could also put the ball up when he needed to, and he dished the rock with the best of them. He was only the 11th player in NBA history to score 15,000 points and tally 5,000 assists in a career. Larry Bird considered DJ the best guard he ever played with, which is saying something.

My condolences to DJ's family and numerous friends.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Canceled permanently: The Anna Nicole Show

Just when you thought her bizarre life story couldn't possibly get any more strange...

Anna Nicole Smith is dead at age 39.

The news is just landing on the 'Net as I type, but it appears that the one-time centerfold and reality TV star collapsed and died at the Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, where she had been staying since the beginning of the week.

Anna Nicole lived out a biography that would sound like pure fiction if you saw it in a TV movie on Lifetime. The Houston native with the million-dollar bust rose from humble beginnings as a teenaged bride named Vickie Lynn Hogan who shook her twin moneymakers for cash in topless clubs, to Playboy's Playmate of the Year in 1993. She became a national media presence as the spokesmodel for Guess jeans (and more recently, the weight-loss supplement Trimspa), and international tabloid fodder when she married 89-year-old billionaire J. Howard Marshall II in 1994.

When Marshall died — no surprise — the following year, Anna Nicole became embroiled in a decade-long legal wrangle with Marshall's son over the dead tycoon's estate. She appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court last May, as the Nine Old Folks reinstated a California judgment that gave Anna Nicole at least partial rights to the Marshall fortune. A month later, Marshall's son died.

Five years ago, Anna Nicole threw open the curtains on her personal life in the E! Channel reality series, The Anna Nicole Show. America watched as the platinum bombshell careened through her storied existence like a drunken bull in Tiffany's.

Last September, Anna Nicole's 20-year-old son Daniel died under mysterious circumstances in his mother's hotel room in the Bahamas. Only three days earlier, Anna Nicole had given birth to a baby daughter, Dannielynn, whose paternity remains the subject of controversy. Now, Anna Nicole herself has gone to join her beloved boy in that big fried chicken joint in the hereafter.

No doubt, we'll hear much more (more, probably, than we'll want) about Ms. Smith's untimely departure in the days and weeks to come. Like her idols Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield before her, she made a sudden — and early — exit.

Perhaps as much as any other human being one could name, Anna Nicole Smith epitomized the time-honored axiom: Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Last call for The Grab Bag

When people learn that I'm a former Jeopardy! champion, one of the first questions they often ask is, "How did you learn all that stuff?"

The man responsible for at least part of the answer died last week, at age 79.

For nearly 40 years, Louis Malcolm (L.M.) Boyd wrote a weekly newspaper column presenting arcane facts distilled for a mass audience. The column was published under various names in some 400 papers nationwide at the time Boyd retired in December 2000, but in the San Francisco Chronicle — where I first discovered it in the mid-1970s — it was known as The Grab Bag.

The Grab Bag appeared every Sunday in the Chronicle's "light reading" section, the Sunday Punch. In it, one found a veritable treasure trove of trivia, esoterica, results of various surveys, and factoids of every description, reported with conciseness (most Grab Bag items were only a sentence or two in length) and gentle humor by the redoubtable Boyd. You can browse a sampling of typically Boydian nuggets here.

Boyd started writing his trivia column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (where Boyd used the nom de plume Mike Mailway) in 1963. He and his wife Patricia began syndicating the piece nationally in 1967.

Boyd often salted his columns with wry observations on the interaction between the sexes, which he attributed to "our Love and War Man" — in reality, these tidbits came from Mrs. Boyd.

Although I can't point to a specific instance with absolute certainty, I have no doubt that, at more than one juncture in my Jeopardy! career, I came up with a correct response to a clue only because I had once encountered that very morsel of obscure information in a Grab Bag column.

Thank you, Mr. Boyd.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Happy Monday, and remember to drink your MLK

I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.

I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him.

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

I believe that even amid today's motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.

I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.

I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up.

I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent, redemptive goodwill proclaimed the rule of the land. "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid."

I still believe that we shall overcome!

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, December 10, 1964

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Prowling for Vipers

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of legendary animator Iwao Takamoto, who passed away this week at age 81.

Like thousands of Americans of Japanese descent, Takamoto spent the World War II years in California's Manzanar internment camp. While at Manzanar, he honed his skills at drawing. After the war, Takamoto landed a job with Disney, where he worked as an animator and design artist on such classic films as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, and One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Takamoto joined Hanna-Barbera in the early 1960s, where he designed the characters for numerous cartoon series, including Josie and the Pussycats, Wacky Races, and most memorably, Scooby-Doo. He also directed the 1973 animated feature film version of Charlotte's Web.

Mr. Takamoto will be missed, but his work lives on.

Some weeks back, I spent one Comic Art Friday pondering the whereabouts of former Marvel Comics artist M.C. Wyman. I ponder no more. Not only has the elusive Mr. Wyman resurfaced — he recently posted several new sketches for sale on eBay — but he was gracious enough to place his inimitable stamp on my ever-popular Common Elements gallery with a new commissioned artwork. Here, Wyman brings together two characters from Marvel's past: the Prowler and Viper.

The Prowler began his costumed career as a villain, appearing first in one of the most fondly recalled comics from my youth, Amazing Spider-Man #78 (November 1969). The character made a dramatic impression on me because behind the Prowler's mask lived a young black man named Hobie Brown. At that time, African Americans were almost as scarce in comic books as at, say, a country and western jamboree. A black villain, in particular, was practically unheard of. The Prowler may have been among the first.

Hobie didn't remain a villain for long. With Spider-Man's encouragement, the Prowler quickly reformed, becoming one of the Wall-Crawler's best friends and staunchest allies — even donning the famous Spider-Man costume as a decoy on at least a couple of occasions. He has resurfaced several times over the years, most notably in a solo Prowler miniseries in 1994, and again most recently in Marvel's current megaevent, Civil War.

I've always retained a soft spot for the Prowler — so much so, in fact, that one of the very first purchases I acquired for my comic art collection was a recreation of that classic cover to Amazing Spider-Man #78. This recreation was drawn in 2004 by comics industry legend Jim Mooney, who inked the original ASM #78 art. (John Romita Sr., Silver Age Spidey artist and later Marvel's art director, drew the original pencils.) You'll notice a few subtle differences from the actual cover, but I think Mooney — who's in his mid-80s and still drawing up a storm — did a bang-up job of revisiting this landmark piece of Marvel history.

I was thrilled when MC Wyman agreed to depict the Prowler in my latest Common Elements commission. Paired with Hobie is the mysterious Viper, a longtime Marvel villainess who first surfaced in the same year as the Prowler, albeit a few months earlier (in Captain America #110, February 1969).

Known at first by the code name Madame Hydra, this empress of evil (whose real name, so far as I'm aware, has never been revealed in the comics) later took the nom de guerre Viper, and so she is called to this day. The character appeared — with a different identity and backstory — in the cheesetastic late '90s TV movie Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., starring David "The Hoff" Hasselhoff in the title role.

The astute among you have already figured this out, I'm sure. But for those coming late to the party, who may be wondering what common element the Prowler and Viper share: Think sports cars. Think Chrysler.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Lily Munster rejoins the undead

I don't know whether the role of a vampire on a television sitcom was the legacy by which actress Yvonne De Carlo would have wanted to be remembered.

But it's the one she's stuck with.

Ms. De Carlo, who portrayed Lily Dracula Munster on that hoary chestnut of '60s TV kitsch, The Munsters, died today at age 84. Fans of big-budget spectacle and/or religious cinema will also recall her as Zipporah, the wife of Charlton Heston's Moses, in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments.

Before the roles in which she gained her dubious immortality, Ms. De Carlo (real name Peggy Middleton, which not only lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, but also would have been easily confused with Penny Singleton, who played Blondie in a series of popular films in the 1930s and '40s; Penny Singleton's real name was Dorothy McNulty, which would not have been easily confused with Yvonne De Carlo) was a contract player at various Hollywood studios, where she tended to be cast in the sort of ethnically ambiguous sex symbol parts that often went to such actresses as Dorothy Lamour and Maria Montez (whose real names were Mary Leta Slaton and María de Santos Silas, respectively... but I digress).

Aside from her two best-known roles, Ms. De Carlo toiled busily in dozens of mostly B-level productions during a lengthy film and television career, ended by age and ill health in the early 1990s.

Truth to tell, I was always a Morticia Addams man anyway.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Unca Lloyd

Most of the people who merit eulogizing in this space are celebrities of one sort or another — whether famous or infamous — and usually significant in my memory or experience in some way.

Today, I memorialize someone who, though not a celebrity in the usual sense of that word, and not particularly famous outside a rather narrowly specific sphere, was by virtue of a few brief interactions significant in my experience, and will remain so in my memory as long as I live.

In the fraternity of barbershop singers, we called him Unca Lloyd.

I knew of Lloyd Steinkamp for several years before I actually met him. He fit that oft-repeated cliché as a person of whom everyone who spoke, spoke fondly. Few people I've known deserved the accolades more. He was a tireless promoter of the hobby he loved, both as an official Barbershop Harmony Society representative for many years, and as an enthusiastic coach and instructor — especially of young people — for many more.

When I at last met the legendary Unca Lloyd, I was astounded that so immense a reputation could fit a man at least a head shorter than I. A boisterous little fireplug of a guy, Unca Lloyd immediately filled any room he entered with his boundless joie de vivre. At any barbershop event he attended, he was always surrounded by folks renewing acquaintances, seeking his advice, or both. Thus, I could hardly believe it when, after a competition in which my chorus had just competed, he buttonholed me and introduced himself.

"I love watching you perform," he said.

Now, I've been praised often on my performing ability. I've been on stage in one form or another all of my life. More than once, judges evaluating my chorus in competition have singled me out for commendation.

But I was never more thunderstruck by a compliment as I was in that moment.

"Do you sing in a quartet?" Lloyd asked me.

"No, sir" I replied.

"Well, you ought to," he said, his eyes never leaving mine. "You've got talent in desperate need of more exposure."

I thanked him profusely, and walked on air for the rest of the day.

A year or two later, I was singing lead in my then-new quartet. Following one of our typically mediocre showings in a contest, Unca Lloyd caught up with me again. "I'm so happy to see you singing in a quartet," he said. "Now you need to be in a better one."

Again, I thanked him, and acknowledged — with absolute sincerity — that I often felt that it was my fellow quartet members who deserved a better lead vocalist. Lloyd would have none of it.

"I see everyone in this Society perform — everyone," he told me. "You're as good onstage as anyone we have right now."

Again, I thanked him. And again, I walked on air for the rest of the day.

That conversation, in one form or another, was repeated at least three times over the next couple of contest cycles. Whenever my quartet competed, I could always count on Unca Lloyd seeking me out to compliment me, and offer a helpful hint or two.

I tell this story, not to flatter myself, but as a reflection of the kind of man Lloyd Steinkamp was. Lloyd knew, coached, and was eagerly sought after by the very best talents in our musical genre. He was an immense fish in our little pond. I, conversely, am an unknown in a Society of around 30,000 singers. I was one face, one tuxedo among a few dozen on a crowded stand of risers; the lead singer in a C-level quartet with no realistic aspirations for greatness. As the pond goes, I hardly qualify as a minnow. It gained Unca Lloyd nothing to single me out for ego-boo, when hundreds of guys with grand reputations and musical gifts dwarfing mine wanted to chat him up.

But he did it anyway.

And I'll bet I was one of several thousand for whom he did.

Lloyd Steinkamp died today after a tough battle with lung cancer. Word of his passing probably won't appear on your evening news, or make the morning edition of your local paper. But it deserves mention here.

I'll miss you, Unca Lloyd.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man

This has been a rotten December for ex-San Francisco Giant infielders.

First, we received the news three weeks ago that Jose Uribe, shortstop for the Giants in those heady late-'80s days of "You Gotta Like These Kids," had been killed an an automobile accident in his native Dominican Republic.

Now, the sad news arrives that Chris Brown, who as the Giants' third baseman shared the left side of the San Francisco infield with Uribe during the 1985 and '86 seasons, died yesterday from injuries sustained in a November 30 fire at his Houston-area home.

Brown was 45 years old, a mere four months my senior.

I recall Chris Brown as a decent hitter (he racked up a .317 batting average in 1986, and made the National League All-Star team) with surprisingly little power for a corner player (his highest seasonal home run total was 16, as a rookie in 1985). Sadly, he was also a stone-gloved fielder — perhaps the worst defensive third baseman I ever saw on a regular basis, if you don't count either the Cincinnati Reds' embarrassing experiment with Johnny Bench late in the Hall of Famer's career, or Pedro Guerrero's 1983 debacle with the Los Angeles Dodgers. (At the nadir of that '83 season, in which Guerrero's defensive miscues provided nightly fodder for sports commentators nationwide, Dodgers skipper Tommy Lasorda asked Guerrero in a team meeting what he was thinking about while standing at third base. Pedro's refreshingly candid reply: "I'm hoping they don't hit it to me.")

During his playing days — which spanned parts of six major league seasons, including post-S.F. stops in San Diego and Detroit — Brown's teammates nicknamed him "the Tin Man," after the Wizard of Oz character. The tag was a not-so-subtle insinuation that Brown's penchant for sitting out games with apparently minor injuries was indicative of his lack of heart.

Ironically, Brown spent much of the past few years dodging bullets and roadside bombs in Iraq, as a fuel truck driver for Halliburton. Perhaps that was his way of laying all of those questions about his courage and mental toughness to rest.

Now, it's Chris Brown himself being laid to rest.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

He was no Lincoln — but then, who is?

All right, whoever had 93-year-old former President Gerald Ford in the dead pool, please step forward to claim your winnings. Amazing foresight there.

Gerald R. Ford, the 38th President of these here United States, made a much better source of Jeopardy! fodder than he made a Chief Executive:
  • The first (and to date, only) President never to have been elected either to the Presidency or the Vice Presidency.

  • The first Vice President installed under the provisions of the 25th Amendment. As shocking as it sounds in today's world, in the nearly 200 years before Ford replaced the resigned-ahead-of-the-impeachment-boot Spiro Agnew, when the office of Vice President fell vacant due to death or succession, it simply remained unoccupied until the next Presidential election cycle filled the position — on occasion, as much as four years later (as in the case of our 13th Vice President, William R. King, who was terminally ill when elected and survived a mere 45 days in office). No wonder John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt's longest-serving veep, referred to the job as "not worth a bucket of warm [urine, only he didn't say 'urine']."

  • The only President to hold the office under an entirely different name than the one he was given at birth. Ford was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr., but was renamed by his mother when she remarried. (Ulysses Simpson Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant, but he changed his name while at West Point to avoid getting teased about his initials: H.U.G. Simpson was his mother's maiden name.)

  • The only President whose parents were divorced.

  • The only President to fully pardon a disgraced predecessor who would undoubtedly have faced criminal prosecution.

  • The only President to survive two assassination attempts (by what had to be the most inept would-be assassins in the annals of crime — Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a whacked-out disciple of Charles Manson, and Patty Hearst fanatic and FBI informant Sara Jane Moore) within the space of less than three weeks.

  • The longest-lived former President, beating Ronald Reagan's record by more than a month.

  • The first Republican President to name an African American to his Cabinet (William Coleman as Transportation Secretary, one of the few jobs in Washington even more anonymous and thankless than the Vice Presidency).

  • The only human being on the planet who could have lost a Presidential election to Jimmy Carter.

  • The only President in the last 75 years never to have been Time Magazine's Person of the Year.

  • The last surviving member of the Warren Commission, and perhaps one of the last people to carry to his grave the true answer to whether there was or wasn't a second gunman in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Gerald Ford, the former football star from the University of Michigan, became Vice President and ultimately President for one simple reason: He was a nice guy who could be counted upon to grant Richard Nixon absolute immunity when the time came for Tricky Dick to beat feet for San Clemente in the wake of the Watergate scandal. And he did.

Ford was such a nice guy, in fact, that he frequently gave free advice to the men of both parties who followed him to the Oval Office. Given what's eventuated in the administrations of those men, one might well suppose that Jerry perhaps should have kept his advice to himself.

History will not be kind to the brief Presidency of Gerald R. Ford, perhaps one of this country's greatest exemplars of the Peter Principle. But at least he was one President of whom the American electorate could honestly say, "Don't look at us — he wasn't our fault."

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Monday, December 25, 2006

The Godfather has Souled out

We interrupt your Christmas revelry for this bit of unfortunate news:

The one and only James Brown, also variously known as...
  • The Godfather of Soul...
  • Mister Dynamite...
  • The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business...
  • Soul Brother Number One...
  • The Night Train...
  • Butane James...
  • The Father of Funk...
  • Mister Please Please Please...
  • The Original Disco Man...
  • Universal James...
  • The Sex Machine...
  • and His Bad Self...
...passed away this morning at the age of 73.

Tonight, the world is a less funky place.

It's a hoary cliché to say that someone's influence cannot be overestimated, but when it comes to American popular music, James Brown is the perfect exemplar of that statement. Every rock, soul, funk, and R&B performer of the last 40 years owes an incalculable debt to the Godfather. Without James Brown, you have no Michael Jackson, no Mick Jagger, no Janis Joplin, no Aretha Franklin, no Bono, no Prince. Hip-hop? Forget about it. Without James Brown, there is no hip-hop; he's the most sampled artist who ever laid a track on wax.

In short, the man had a zillion hyperbolic nicknames, but he earned every one.

I enjoyed the privilege of attending one of the Godfather's legendary performances nearly a quarter-century ago. Brown was in his late forties then, and some of his "get up offa that thing" had already got up and gone, but Butane James still threw down an incendiary 90-minute set that would have put many younger performers to shame. Heck, I was a hale, hearty twentysomething college kid, and the man wore me out just watching him work up a sweat.

It's impossible to distill the musical accomplishments of a seminal artist like Brown to just a few greatest hits, but just off the top of my head, here are my baker's dozen all-time favorite James Brown cuts:
  • "Please, Please, Please": The hit that set the standard for all that was to come.
  • "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag": And it was filled with nothing but stone cold soul.
  • "I Got You (I Feel Good)": Yes, my beloved Giants wore the grooves off this one when they used it for several seasons as their theme song, but there's a reason why it worked.
  • "Cold Sweat": Ripped from the deepest recesses of a man's libido, and survived to tell the tale.
  • "Licking Stick": Mama, come here quick, indeed.
  • "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud": The anthem of a generation of socially aware African Americans. Not to mention a bunch of freckle-faced Irish kids from Dublin.
  • "Let a Man Come In and Do the Popcorn": Ladies, even if you weren't exactly sure what "doing the popcorn" meant, you knew you wanted James to come in and do it.
  • "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine": I'll buy that for a dollar.
  • "Hot Pants": She's got to use what she's got to get what she wants.
  • "Get On the Good Foot": Just try to listen to this number and not want to shake what your mama gave you. Go ahead. Try.
  • "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing": In which Mr. Brown gets all sociopolitical on your butt.
  • "Papa Don't Take No Mess": Don't even think about starting anything. The Godfather will take you down.
  • "Get Up Offa That Thing": Words to live by.
I'm sad to think that Papa and his brand new bag have left the building permanently. We'll never see his like again.

One last thought, of a personal nature: About 20 years ago, I worked with a very pleasant fellow whose name just happened to be James Brown. I used to refer to him playfully as "the Godfather of Soul," despite the fact that he was as terminally Caucasian an individual as one could find. James, on the other hand, relished the association. He even asked me to record a message for his answering machine in which I imitated the real James Brown's stage announcer's stentorian oratory:
James Brown — the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, the Sex Machine — cannot take your call right now. But leave a message at the beep, and he'll get back to you.
I hope the other James Brown is still alive and well.

We now return you to your mistletoe and eggnog.

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