Monday, April 13, 2009

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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Monday, March 30, 2009

New sheriff in Trebekistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even though Bob neglected to mention me in it.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Movies is movies, books is books

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

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

From my perspective, these arguments are ridiculous.

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

And that's okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, get over it.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Kindle me this, Batman

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

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

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

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

My Amazon Kindle arrived.

More precisely, my Amazon Kindle 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read on, Macduff.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Paperless San Francisco

The hot story around these parts is the Hearst Corporation's announcement of its intention to either sell or shut down the San Francisco Chronicle — the Bay Area's newspaper of record, and the second-largest paper (in terms of circulation) on the West Coast — within the next few weeks, unless a round of layoffs can stem the paper's tide of red ink.

This doesn't come as a total surprise, as newspapers all over the country are struggling against the ever-rising tide of the Internet.

Still, it's unsettling to imagine the newspaper of Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, Matier and Ross, Scott Ostler, Pierre Salinger, Charles McCabe, Phil Frank, Ray Ratto, Joel Selvin, Tim Goodman, and "Dear Abby" going the way of the passenger pigeon and buck-a-gallon gasoline.

The Chron has never really been a bastion of cutting-edge journalism, outside of its legendary Sporting Green — 45 years ago, satirist Tom Lehrer joked concerning a major news story of the day, "It happened during baseball season, so the Chronicle didn't cover it." That reputation for fluff persisted into the modern Hearst era, which began in 2000 when Hearst sold its one-time flagship paper, the San Francisco Examiner, and bought the Chronicle outright from the DeYoung family.

Nevertheless, the Chron has always been staffed by brilliant writers, most notably its columnists (sports and otherwise). It remains, if not the most hard-hitting news entity on the planet, one of the most readable and entertaining.

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't helped the situation any. I've picked up the actual newsprint Chronicle not more than a handful of times in the past decade or so. Its online presence, however, is an indispensable part of my daily info crawl. I'd miss it terribly if it went away.

Here's hoping that a streamlined Chronicle can find a way to survive.

The Bay Area would not be the same without it.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

So long, Stacey's

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

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

That leads me to another thought, however...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Thursday, December 18, 2008

The L. Ron Hubbard School of Mathematics

Just in case anyone still needed proof that Scientology rots the brain:

In an interview published in the December 8 issue of Newsweek, Will Smith extols the virtues of his boon companion Tom Cruise, whom the Fresh Prince of All Media describes as "one of the most open, honest and helpful people I've met in Hollywood, or really anywhere."

Reporter Allison Samuels follows up: "No one else gave you that kind of support in all your years in the business?"

To which Will responds: "Well, Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby reached out and really helped me back in the day, but they were older. Tom is my age..."

Umm, Will...

Tom Cruise is your age, but Eddie Murphy is "older"?

Will Smith was born September 25, 1968. Save the grab for your calculator: He's 40.

Eddie Murphy was born born April 3, 1961. He's 47. Okay, so he's older than Will — not as much as Bill Cosby, who's 71, but still, a few years older.

Tom Cruise was born July 3, 1962. That makes him 46... just one year younger than the apparently ancient Eddie Murphy.

Will: Put that copy of Dianetics down now, before your skull implodes.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Elementary, my dear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What's Up With That? #64: What, me read?

In an interview aired last evening on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin either couldn't or wouldn't give a specific answer to Couric's question about the news sources she reads. Here's the exchange:
Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?

Palin: I've read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.

Couric: What, specifically?

Palin: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.

Can you name a few?

Palin: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too. Alaska isn't a foreign country, where it's kind of suggested, "Wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C., may be thinking when you live up there in Alaska?" Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.
I'm guessing that the governor wasn't certain whether Field & Stream, Guns & Ammo, The Hockey News, and Pageantry qualified as "news sources."

In the interest of full disclosure — and in the event that I am ever called upon to serve as the Vice President of the United States — my campaign is releasing the following list of online news sources I check regularly. I don't read everything on these sites — who has that kind of time? — but I do scan all of the headlines, and read each article that seems pertinent to me.
  • SFGate, the online version of the San Francisco Chronicle, is the first site I review every day.

  • For world and national news, I read The New York Times and the network news sites, in order of preference: MSNBC, CBS News, CNN, ABC News, and FOX News.

  • For Sonoma County news, there's the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (which, continuing the full-disclosure theme, is owned by the New York Times) and our homegrown alternative weekly, the North Bay Bohemian.

  • For political updates, I'll check Politico. I don't read a lot of political blogs, but my daily review includes The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and yes, The Drudge Report, because everything's better with cheese.

  • For an aggregate sampling of everything — but mostly for entertainment, pop culture, and just plain bizarre news that I might never ferret out or stumble upon otherwise — I use TotalFARK, the expanded, subscription-only edition of
I'm SwanShadow, and I approve this message.

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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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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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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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Thursday, January 03, 2008

What's On My Desk? 2008

KM and I just completed our annual post-New Year foray to our local shopping mall, to raid the calendar kiosk during its closeout 50%-off sale.

This year, my desk will be showcasing this calendar:

I haven't had a movie calendar on my desk in a few years, so this will be a pleasant change. In 2007, I reverted, after a hiatus of several years, to The Far Side, which released an authorized desk calendar for the first time in a while. The previous year, if I recall correctly, I used a sampler of "Stupidest Things Ever Said." (I was relieved to note, at year's end, that I had not been quoted.)

In case you're curious, the highlighted film for January 3, 2008 is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Memo to George W.: You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you.)

For completeness' sake, KM's new 2008 wall calendar features the cast of Heroes. Save the calendar, save the world.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sweeping up the reindeer droppings

Another Christmas is fading into the annals of history. As usual, my family has been more gracious to me than I deserve. And as usual, I wish I'd had a few thousand dollars to toss around while I was shopping for them.

Well-fed and happy, however, I think we're all grateful for one more Christmas. We're more acutely aware than some that it's never a given.

Speaking of given... let's run the highlights.
  • For the sharp-dressed man in me: Several nice shirts and pairs of dress-casual trousers. I rarely — okay, never — buy clothing for myself, so such gifts are always welcome.

  • For the sharp-bladed objects freak in me: Two new pocketknives. The Smith & Wesson scrimshaw folder will mostly be a display item, but the Kershaw Needs Work has been busy on package-opening duty since I received it last night. I'll write more about the latter in a "What's in My Pocket?" post, coming soon.

  • For the comics geek in me: Matching copies of The Marvel Encyclopedia and The DC Comics Encyclopedia. Great reference works that will come in handy for future art commission projects and Comic Art Fridays. Santa also left a gift certificate for my friendly neighborhood comics shop.

  • For the gadget geek in me: A Sony digital voice recorder. Terrific for recording interviews, chorus rehearsals, and quick memos to my increasingly absent-minded self. Also, a projection clock that automatically sets itself to atomic time. I'll always be a little nervous when it hits midnight.

  • For the sports geek in me: Two electronic sports trivia games. Obsessed With Baseball has already been given ample opportunity to humiliate my knowledge of the national pastime.

  • For the infomaniac in me: The 19th edition of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader. Always useful during those marathon sessions you-know-where.

  • For the cinemaniac in me: From my daughter, DVDs of The Terminal and Mystic River. Spielberg and Eastwood — how can you go wrong?

  • For the chef in me: A few handy kitchen gadgets, including a new battery-operated can opener and a sure-grip spatula.
I bought KJ some new clothes, including the outfit she wore to celebrate Christmas today. I also got her a pro-quality FoodSaver, which I've wanted to give her ever since I wrote copy for the manufacturer's Christmas catalog a few years back.

My personal gift to KM was a silver bracelet — ironically, her mom bought her a bracelet (albeit a very different one) also. Now what KM's officially an adult, it's time to indoctrinate her into every American woman's obsession: jewelry.

I hope you got something nifty from someone in your life, and that you shared some wonderful things with those around you as well.

Happy Christmas to all... and to all, a special two-hour edition of Deal or No Deal.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Now we are (forty-) six

Another year, another birthday.

The girls got me one of the two things I really wanted: Schulz and Peanuts, David Michaelis's controversial biography of cartoonist and local legend Charles Schulz.

I'm looking forward to reading it, so that I can see what all the furor is about.

The second thing I wanted, I found for myself on eBay: A DVD-ROM set containing every issue of Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer published by Marvel Comics through December 2006. (I already own the version that compiles all the back issues of The Amazing Spider-Man.)

Graphic Imaging Technology, the company that created these software libraries, is losing its publishing license from Marvel at the end of this month (Marvel has decided to offer its own online subscription archive service instead), so these items will no longer be manufactured after the first of the year. (You'll be able to hunt them up on eBay indefinitely.) I still want to get the Avengers version while it's available cheap. [UPDATE: Score! I found the Avengers DVD-ROM for a nice price on eBay. Happy birthday, me!]

Birthday greetings have already begun to pour in. I've received voice mail messages from my friend Donna, and from my cell phone service provider. (I'm pretty sure that Donna wasn't schmoozing me for more business.)

At my advanced age, I have much to be grateful for. I'm in decent health for a middle-aged fat guy. I'm surrounded by people who love me (or at least are willing to tolerate me, which is kind of the same thing). I spend at least some part of every day doing something I enjoy. I'm not in prison — they've never been able to make those charges stick — I'm not in debt, and I'm not in the cemetery.

As the great Joe Walsh once said, life's been good to me so far.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Eight years of News From ME

Happy blogiversary to writer, humorist, and all-around good guy Mark Evanier, whose celebrated blog, News From ME, marks its eighth year of existence today.

Mark's blog was the first I ever read on a regular basis. My enjoyment of his daily — and usually, several times daily — jottings helped inspired the genesis of SSTOL, some three and a half years ago.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mark's oeuvre, suffice it to say that his nearly 40-year career writing for television and comics spans more credits than your average small-town phone book. For the small screen, Mark has written hundreds of sitcoms (everything from Welcome Back, Kotter to Bob, in which Bob Newhart played a comic book artist), variety shows (including That's Incredible! and the infamous Pink Lady and Jeff), and animated series (he was the producer and chief writer of Garfield and Friends, among numerous others).

In the comics world, Mark broke in as an assistant to the beyond-legendary Jack Kirby. Although he's written all kinds of comics, from superhero (DNAgents) to adventure (Blackhawk) to just plain fun (Scooby-Doo), Mark is best known as the cocreator, with artist Sergio Aragonés, of the hilarious sword-and-sorcery spoof Groo the Wanderer, about a Conanesque barbarian who loves fighting and cheese dip. (You had to be there.)

Mark and Sergio are currently teaming up to write the further adventures of Will Eisner's The Spirit, following an epic run by cartoonist Darwyn Cooke. I've met both Mark and Sergio at various comic conventions in recent years. Two nicer gentlemen you will not find, in any industry. (Sergio Aragonés is, in my never-humble opinion, one of the funniest human beings on the planet, on paper and in real life.)

If you're not already making a daily pilgrimage to News From ME, drop around and check out Mark's musings. Because Mark is one of the leading lights in the Writers Guild of America, his blog is your best source of ongoing information about the WGA strike. It's also just a wonderful read.

Here's to eight more years, Mark — and eighteen more after that!

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What's Up With That? #54: Care to handle my wand, Mr. Potter?

Before we get started: The first one to crack a "headmaster" joke has to sit in the corner until this post is over.

My reaction to the big "Dumbledore was gay!" revelation by J.K. Rowling takes the form of an classic Chicago song (back when they were good, before Peter Cetera turned them into yawn-inducing elevator music for baby boomers):

Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?

Seriously — the sexual orientation of a fictional character in a series of fantasy novels? Who's getting worked up over this?

He doesn't exist, people. Simmer down.

I'm not even sure what Rowling's purpose was in outing the ancient wizard, who was played on film by Michael Gambon and the late Richard Harris. The Harry Potter series is done; Rowling has repeatedly declared that herself. She's not going to write any more Potter books. So it's not as though Dumbledore's practice of the Love That Dares Not Speak At Hogwarts is going to impact future events in the Potter storyline, because there aren't going to be any.

If Rowling wanted to make a statement, and include a gay character in her books, why didn't she, you know, include a gay character in her books? I'm not a Potterite myself, but I understand that old Albus's sexuality never raises its head — so to speak — in the stories themselves. If it wasn't important enough for Rowling to characterize Dumbledore as gay when she was actually writing the books, what possible difference could it make now? How does it add anything to what she's written if it isn't on the page?

This whole business reminds me of the final episode of Law & Order in which Serena Southerlyn, the assistant district attorney played by Elisabeth Röhm, appeared. In her exit scene, Serena asks her soon-to-be-former boss Arthur Branch (in the guise of future GOP Presidential contender Fred Dalton Thompson) if he's firing her because she's a lesbian. (Arthur says, "No, of course not," because no Republican would ever fire anyone because he or she was homosexual. Ahem.)

In the four seasons Serena had appeared on the show, there had been not one whit of implication that she was gay; if anything, the several mentions of her previous relationships with men would have suggested that she was straight. It was as though the writers, as they wrote Serena's last line of dialogue, suddenly decided, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if she were a lesbian?"

The French have an expression: esprit d'escalier, "the spirit of the staircase." The Germans have one like it: treppenwitz, "staircase wisdom." Both refer to that flash of genius we all experience when it's too late for it to matter; the brilliant riposte we only think to throw back at an opponent after we've already walking down the steps toward the door.

I suspect Rowling's notion about Dumbledore's preference for the fellows is, like that of the Law & Order scripters, a classic case of staircase wisdom.

Sorry, girlfriend, but Albus has already left the building.

If not the closet.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels

The raindrops should be hitting the roses at any moment now here in lovely Sonoma County (what the heck ever happened to our customary Native American summer?), so here are a few of my favorite things, at least for today:
  • Dead animal flesh cooked over charcoal. I grilled a tri-tip on the old Char-Broil tonight that was sublime — perfectly marinated and done to a turn. Too bad you weren't here to eat some. Then again, there wasn't enough for you anyway. And you weren't getting mine. Take that, PETA.

  • Former Yankees manager Joe Torre, for having the gumption to tell George Steinbrenner to stick his 33 percent pay cut and one-year lame-duckitude where the Times Square neon doesn't shine.

  • My new Dr. Scholl's everyday walking-around shoes. They're comfy.

  • The Highwaymen, the rollicking Wildstorm Comics miniseries cleverly written by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman and drawn with razor-edged gusto by Lee Garbett. Of course, because I love it, it didn't sell worth a tinker's dam, and the fifth issue of the cycle marks the last time we'll see engaging mercenaries Monroe and McQueen ("One drives; one shoots"). If Wildstorm publishes a trade collection (which I doubt they will, given the lackluster sales of the monthly), buy it.

  • Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill. The langostino "lobster" that earned the chain all that untoward publicity a while back is on the menu again for a limited time. Get 'em while they've got 'em.

  • My daughter KM, who's enjoying her first semester of college. She's also taking her driver's license test on Monday — wish her luck!

  • Christopher Walken, who demanded — and supervised the auditions for — a bare-butt double for his latest film, Five Dollars a Day. I have no idea who thought anyone wanted to see Walken's pasty, 64-year-old glutes writ large on the silver screen, but good on Crazy Chris for refusing to drop trou.

  • The matching "Phoenix" and "Arizona" pictorial mugs I brought back from my recent trip to the Valley of the Sun.

  • Costco. It's the only place in town at the moment where regular gasoline is still less than three bucks per gallon.

  • Guy Fieri, our culinary local boy made good. KM and I spotted him and his family walking north of his downtown Santa Rosa restaurant, Tex Wasabi's, one day last week. Nice to see that with all his Food Network fame, Guy still hasn't lost that hometown touch. (Or the board shorts and flip-flops.)

  • The daunting new charts my chorus is learning. Just today, I downloaded an eight-page holiday arrangement that I have to familiarize myself with between now and Tuesday, on top of two others we've received in the last couple of weeks. Fun, complex, challenging music to sing, but the memory stick in the musical corner of my brain is filling up fast. (Yes, I'll get over it.)

  • Good coffee. You can never get enough good coffee.

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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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Monday, October 01, 2007

I was standing on a corner in Phoenix, Arizona

Notes from my weekend junket to the Valley of the Sun with my chorus, Voices in Harmony:
  • My first observation about Phoenix, from the air approaching Sky Harbor International Airport: Brown. Everything is brown. The land is brown. The buildings are mostly brown. Would it be too much to ask to broaden the color palette just a touch?

  • High marks for the Wyndham Phoenix Hotel. My 18th-floor room was nicely laid out and well appointed. I especially liked the bathroom, with its separated vanity and toilet/shower areas, full-length mirror (mighty handy when one is donning a tuxedo), and spacious closet with ample hangers. The bed may have been the most comfortable I've found in a hotel. All of the staff I dealt with were friendly and helpful. The one meal I ordered from room service arrived in a timely fashion, and was palatable to boot. My sole request: More (and faster) elevators to the guest rooms, please.

  • The Wyndham has a Starbucks right in the lobby — that's a gold star all by itself. In case you were curious, a vanilla latte at Starbucks tastes exactly the same no matter where in the world you drink it.

  • My hotel room window overlooked the Chase Tower, Arizona's tallest building, across the street. In its mirrored windows, I could watch jet aircraft landing and taking off.

  • I was surprised by the number of homeless people wandering the streets of downtown Phoenix. (Almost as many as in San Francisco. But not quite.) Although, after I thought about it, this made perfect sense. If you had to sleep outdoors, where would you rather do it: in Phoenix, where it's dry and warm (if not downright hot) most nights during the year, or, say, Minneapolis?

  • For a city relatively close to the border, I would have expected to find better Mexican cuisine in downtown Phoenix. Both of the meals I had in Mexican restaurants, however, were unimpressive. If I had a ballista in my backyard, I could hurl a boulder and hit three or four better Mexican joints.

  • Phoenix Symphony Hall makes an excellent venue both for performing and for enjoying a performance. Attractive environment, great acoustics, and surprisingly comfortable seats.

  • If you want to know what's really going on in a community, read the alternative weekly newspaper. Phoenix has a terrific one: Phoenix New Times. (So does Sonoma County, by the way. The folks at the North Bay Bohemian do an outstanding job.) Although I have to admit, I didn't know that a single locale could boast as many adult entertainment options as are advertised in the back pages of the Phoenix New Times. I suppose that when you live in a city where it's hot most of the year, it's easy to find people who are eager to get naked.

  • The best business to be in right now, apparently: Urban infrastructure. In both of the major cities I've visited in the past few months — Denver, and now Phoenix — half the streets in the downtown area are undergoing major construction. Somebody's making a killing in that racket.

  • The big story in Phoenix over the weekend: A would-be traveler wigged out at Sky Harbor Airport on Friday, after arriving late for her US Airways flight and being denied opportunity to board the already-departing plane. The 45-year-old woman from New York City later died while in police custody. I hereby affirm that I personally did nothing to provoke this incident.

  • On my flight coming home, I ran into the world's greatest vocal percussionist and live-looper — the astoundingly gifted Andrew Chaikin, better known these days as Kid Beyond. The Kid and I hadn't crossed paths since he was performing with San Francisco's a cappella pioneers, The House Jacks, a decade ago. (Frankly, I was stunned that he remembered who I was.) If Kid Beyond comes to your town, you owe it to yourself to buy a ducat and check out his act. In an era of talentless pretenders, this guy's is the real stone-cold deal. Drop by his Web site while you're thinking about it, and get a taste of his awesomeness.

  • I'd been saving a book for the plane trips to and from Phoenix, and it rocks like a house afire: Promise Me, the latest novel by Harlan Coben. It's Coben's first book in seven years to headline his favorite protagonist, former basketball star turned sports agent Myron Bolitar. If you enjoy a crackling suspense read in the modern style, hie thyself over to Amazon and pick up a few Cobens. You'll be glad you did.

  • As for the competition: Voices in Harmony came in second, as expected, with a score of 89.7%. That's a full two percentage points higher than our sixth-place score at International three months ago. (We'd have been fourth with these numbers.) Not bad for a contest set that included a ballad we began learning only eight weeks ago. Sweat equity pays off.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

What's Up With That? #52: Here's the story of two lovely ladies

One-time teen heartthrob Maureen McCormick (I was always a Susan Dey man, but that's just how I rolled in the '70s) reportedly reveals in her upcoming autobiography that she and her Brady Bunch costar Eve Plumb shared Sapphic bliss back in the day.

The National Enquirer — and you know that if it's in the Enquirer, you can take it to the bank — quotes an unnamed source inside the publishing industry as saying that McCormick's expose, entitled Here's the Story, will blow the lid off the former Marcia Brady's struggles with drug abuse, clinical depression, and eating disorders. She also drops a dime on her girl-crush on Plumb, who played middle Brady daughter Jan:
While Maureen is not a lesbian, she reveals there were some sexual hijinks going on behind the scenes.
Sort of lends a new meaning to Jan's trademark cry, "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!" doesn't it?

Given what we already know about the carnal goings-on behind The Brady Bunch's innocent facade — eldest Brady son Barry Williams dated both his TV sister McCormick and his on-screen stepmother Florence Henderson; Brady dad Robert Reed lived a closeted existence gayer than any of his fictional wife's Day-Glo frocks — I suppose the news that Marcia and Jan practiced the sisterly affection that dared not speak its name should come as no great shock.

I just pray that word never comes to light about the torrid backstage tryst between Alice the housekeeper and little Cousin Oliver.

My childhood nostalgia can only withstand so much.

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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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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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Friday, February 16, 2007

Stump the artist!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to fantasy novelist Peter S. Beagle, author of — among numerous other works — the popular The Last Unicorn. The animated film based on Beagle's famous novel is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, with a newly remastered DVD presentation from Lionsgate Entertainment.

What you may not know is that for the past quarter-century, Beagle has been involved in a legal dispute with the producers of The Last Unicorn over his rights and royalties. Although the movie is widely considered a classic — it was one of the first American animated films to be animated in Japan, and many of Japan's best-known animators worked on the project — Beagle has never received a dime of profit from the production.

Beagle's U.S. publishing representative, San Francisco-based Conlan Press, has struck a deal with Lionsgate to directly purchase copies of the new The Last Unicorn DVD for resale. Conlan's even offering autographed copies, hand-signed and personalized by Peter Beagle himself, for an extremely reasonable price. For every DVD Conlan sells, Beagle receives about half the funds. So now, at long last, there's an opportunity for Beagle — who's experienced some tough times over the years — to recoup some financial benefit from his most famous creation.

My daughter KM received her autographed copy in yesterday's mail. I've ordered another autographed copy that will soon be winging its way to my goddaughter in Maine. And it wouldn't hurt my feelings one iota if you, friend reader, dropped over to the Conlan Press Web site and ordered up a copy of The Last Unicorn for yourself, or someone special. In fact, I'd be thrilled if you dropped a note in the comments section to let me know that you did. It's a delightful film, and if you buy your DVD directly from Conlan, the money goes where it should have gone all along.

I thank you, and Peter Beagle thanks you.

I'm sure that as a fantasy writer, Peter Beagle is often asked the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" I get that same query about my Common Elements art commissions. And I answer in the same way that I imagine Peter Beagle does: "I make them up." In fact, concocting ever more mesmerizing combinations of unrelated comic book heroes tied together by some arcane connection is the second-greatest thrill — aside from admiring the art itself — I derive from my comic art collecting obsession hobby.

My greatest thrill? Coming up with a Common Element even the most expert of comic mavens can't decipher. Because I'm devious like that.

On today's featured Common Elements project, I managed to stump even the artist who drew it. I'm as giddy as a schoolgirl with a new DVD of The Last Unicorn, personally autographed by Peter S. Beagle.

Starring in this Common Elements spectacular are two of the lesser lights in the DC Comics universe: The Huntress, seen swinging into action at center stage, and Deadman, reeling into the foreground. This phenomenally designed and beautifully executed drawing sprang from the fertile mind and pencil of artist Luke McDonnell, most famed for his tenures on Marvel Comics' Iron Man and DC's Green Lantern, but a favorite of mine thanks to his work on one of my best-beloved comics from the late '80s and early '90s, Suicide Squad.

After this artwork was completed, Luke e-mailed me to ask: "The common element of this team-up escapes me; care to divulge?" After shouting "Yes!" and pumping my fist into the air in imitation of Tiger Woods, I was only too happy to fill Luke in.

The two leads in this little action drama are the only two superheroes of whom I'm aware whose first names are state capitals. Out of costume, the Huntress is Helena (as in Montana) Wayne, daughter of Bruce (Batman) Wayne and Selina (Catwoman) Kyle in an alternate timeline in which those two legends hooked up. (The current Huntress, who appears DC's Birds of Prey series, has a different backstory and surname, but she's also named Helena.) For his part, Deadman's real name is Boston (as in Massachusetts) Brand.

And before you wags write in, Black Lightning — real name: Jefferson Pierce — doesn't count. His middle name is not "City." Nor do any of the numerous superheroes whose last names are state capitals — i.e., Roy (The Human Bomb) Lincoln; Kyle (Nighthawk) Richmond. Jean (Phoenix) Grey doesn't cut it, either.

Although, now that I think about it, I believe there might be a superheroine whose first name is Madison. But I can't remember who she is.

Luke McDonnell, however, got the last word on this conversation. He stumped me with the villain who's tussling with Deadman and the Huntress here. For the record, it's the Lizard, Spider-Man's reptilian nemesis. But I didn't figure that out until Luke told me.

Well played, Mr. McDonnell.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Remember: Save the unicorn, save the author.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Keep your Sunny side up

Today is Helen Hunt's 43rd birthday.

Not that this is of great moment to anyone except Ms. Hunt and those close to her, which I am not. I can't honestly even say that I'm a huge fan of her work, even though I can recall the days when she was a budding child star and folks in certain quarters were touting her as a sort of poor man's Jodie Foster, whom Helen somewhat resembles.

The occasion of Ms. Hunt's birthday does, however, bring to mind one of those only-in-Hollywood stories.

Back in the 1990s — you remember the '90s, right? the No Style Decade? of course you do — Helen Hunt crossed paths with one of my favorite novelists, Robert B. Parker. (For the uninitiated, Parker writes the perennially best-selling Spenser mystery novels, on which the '80s TV series Spenser: For Hire and its offshoot TV movies were based. He's also responsible for the Jesse Stone novels, which CBS has adapted into a string of popular telefilms starring Tom Selleck.) I'm not privy to all of the circumstances, but it appears that Helen is a fan of Bob's work, and Bob of Helen's, and the two of them expressed a common interest in working on a movie project together.

As the story goes, Bob agreed to create a new female protagonist in the general mold of Spenser, specifically so that Helen could buy the film rights and star as the new character. The character Parker came up with was a private investigator named Sonya "Sunny" Randall, who just happened to be blonde, thirty-something, slightly built, and reasonably attractive, not unlike a certain actress bearing the initials H.H. Like Spenser, Sunny plies her detecting trade in Boston, where she interacts between clues with her supporting cast: ex-husband Richie, whose family is comprised of gangsters; best friend Spike, a muscular gay man who's handy with firearms; and dog Rosie, a bull terrier. (Parker is fond of dogs. His protagonists almost always own one.)

Parker's first Sunny Randall novel, Family Honor, made its way to print in 1999. Parker followed it with (so far) three additional Sunny adventures: Perish Twice (2000), Shrink Rap (2002), and Melancholy Baby (2004). Although the Sunny books appear to sell fairly well, and have been positively reviewed for the most part, to date there hasn't been a Sunny Randall film or television vehicle, starring Helen Hunt or anyone else. With Ms. Hunt graduating into her mid-40s — right about the age at which decent leading-actress roles begin to evaporate in Tinseltown — I'm guessing we never will see her in the role Parker created for her.

Sarah Michelle Gellar might not make a bad alternate choice. Not that anyone asked me.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

They say it's your birthday. It's my birthday, too.

Today I have something in common with two San Francisco icons, Willie "Stretch" McCovey and "Dirty" Harry Callahan: the number 44.

I guess that means that either this coming year will be a towering home run, or it will blow my head clean off.

Do I feel lucky?

If you're still fretting over what to get me for this auspicious occasion, you could probably do worse than The Robert B. Parker Companion by Dean James and Elizabeth Foxwell, a newly published guide to the works of my favorite mystery novelist, or any recent volume (Volumes 12-17) of the 17-volume (so far) Spirit Archives, which reprint in glorious color the legendary newspaper strips of comic art's greatest innovator and storyteller, Will Eisner. (Eisner was in the Army during World War II, and Volumes 3 through 11 of the series contain the work of the writers and artists who filled in during Eisner's absence. Historically interesting, but little more than that. Anything from Volume 12 forward, however, is pure Eisner at the peak of his powers.)

That, or a personal birthday greeting from Diane Lane.

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Sunday, December 19, 2004

It's my birthday and I'll blog if I want to...

...and if I don't want to, I won't. So, no promises about the rest of today.

Before you ask, I was born on this date in 1961. Do the math.

And I know you probably weren't planning on splurging for a gift or anything, but in case you were, a copy of Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones would hit the spot nicely, thanks.

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