Archive for July 2009

Comic Art Friday: We stand on guard for thee

July 31, 2009

Not long ago on Comic Art Friday, we featured an artwork from my Common Elements commission series entitled “Union Jacks.” This piece showcased an all-British theme: two British heroes (Captain Britain and Marvelman, known here in the U.S. as Miracleman) drawn by a British artist, Mike McKone.

Surely, you didn’t think that was the only such idea your Uncle Swan had up his sleeve? (I know, I know… ideas don’t come from sleeves, and don’t call you Shirley.)

Today, we continue our salute to the English-speaking nations with this all-Canada spectacular.

Comics’ most familiar Canadian superhero, Wolverine, finds himself on a scouting mission with Captain Canuck, the Great White North’s nationalist hero. Bringing this scenario to life is one of Canada’s finest exports, Dave Ross, who burst onto the American comics scene in the 1980s as the artist on Marvel’s Canadian superteam, Alpha Flight, and went on to illustrate such series as Avengers West Coast, Rai and the Future Force, Magnus: Robot Fighter, Birds of Prey, and most recently, Angel.

Befitting the overarching theme, I commissioned this piece from Dave on July 1 — Canada Day.

When Wolverine first popped up as a guest star in a pair of 1974 issues of The Incredible Hulk, no one could have envisioned that the little yellow-clad Canadian with the metal claws would evolve into a franchise superstar. And indeed, he didn’t right away. It wasn’t until the following year, when the character was added to the roster of the “all-new, all-different” X-Men, that his rise to the heroic pantheon began. When Canadian artist John Byrne took over the series, he pushed for Wolverine’s greater prominence. Before long, Wolvie was starring in several series and miniseries of his own, in addition to becoming the pivotal character in the X-Men franchise.

Sometimes, legends are born from the humblest beginnings.

Today, of course, Wolverine is known to millions of people who’ve never cracked open a comic book, thanks to the X-Men films and the recent spin-off, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It seems to me an odd bit of casting that the 6′ 3″ Australian actor Hugh Jackman portrays a superhero who’s supposed to be 5′ 5″ and Canadian, but that’s Hollywood for you.

I’m sure that Captain Canuck would give his maple leaf just to be mentioned in a major motion picture. Or even in a comic book series that sold more than a few thousand copies. Interestingly, the good Captain and his adamantium-clawed countryman exploded on the scene only a few months apart, as the first issue of Captain Canuck appeared in July 1975. In the years since, three different individuals — Tom Evans, Darren Oak, and David Semple — have donned the Captain’s red-and-white fighting togs, in several series mostly published by creator Richard Comely’s flagship label, Comely Comics.

Although both Wolverine and Captain Canuck make their Common Elements debuts in this artwork, it marks Dave Ross’s second entry into my ever-expanding theme series. Dave’s first creation for the Common Elements gallery was “Wagnerian Opera,” this stunning panel featuring one of my favorite heroines, the Valkyrie, alongside Wolverine’s X-Men compatriot Nightcrawler. Legendary inker Joe Rubinstein supplied the finishing touches.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Ryan is tryin’ but Freddy’s not ready

July 29, 2009

Do I think that the San Francisco Giants have become world-beaters, now that they’ve added Ryan (Don’t Call Me Donnie) Garko and Freddy (Don’t Call Me Dirty) Sanchez to their everyday lineup?


But I do think they’re a better ballclub than they were three days ago. And I think they’ve improved their chances in the National League wild card race, which they currently lead by a half-game over the Colorado Rockies.


Sanchez is legit — a career .300 hitter, an All-Star three of the last four years (including this year), and a solid defensive second baseman. Assuming that his inflamed knee clears up sooner rather than later, and doesn’t prove to me a chronic complaint, Sanchez is light-years superior to the cast of thousands the G-Men have trotted out to the keystone sack thus far this season.

Garko, while not the player than Sanchez is, will give the Giants more consistent offense than the incumbent, Travis Ishikawa, who will still see action as a late-inning defensive replacement and against certain right-handed pitchers. Garko’s a former Stanford guy, so he’s got to have at least a few synapses firing, and he brings post-season experience to a team with next to none.

Had I my druthers, sure, I’d have liked for the Giants to pick up a bat that could jolt the ball out of the yard once or twice a week. Unfortunately, most of the available power hitters come with serious negatives — either they would cost San Francisco more in trade than the Giants would want to surrender (Jermaine Dye), or they’d command too high a salary to guarantee return on investment (Adam Dunn), or they’d alter the team dynamic (specifically, the defense) in unpalatable ways (Dunn again, or Nick Johnson).

With these considerations, I believe that GM Brian Sabean and his team have done as well as one could expect.

Now, we just need Freddy’s quarrelsome knee to mellow out, keep Garko swinging the stick the way he did in his first at-bat today, and follow our world-class pitching staff into the playoffs.

Of course, if we could snag Jermaine Dye for a rosin bag and a shoe-shine, that would be wicked awesome too.

Jeopardy! Summer Hiatus Challenge

July 27, 2009

Over at the Jeopardy! message boards, the 2009 Summer Hiatus Challenge begins today.

The SHC is an annual online trivia tournament designed to keep hardcore Jeopardy! fanatics occupied during the six midsummer weeks when the show is in reruns. Compiled by board regular “DadOfTwins,” the SHC always offers excellent mental exercise, with two full Jeopardy!-style categories of five answers each, posted daily Monday through Friday. It also invariably engenders impassioned, often humorous discussion and debate about the questions themselves.

The SHC is especially cool for me because it presents a rare opportunity to cross swords with other former Jeopardy! champions. In last year’s SHC, your Uncle Swan finished in a surprising fifth place, while two legends of the game — Steve Chernicoff (board ID “OldSchoolChamp”) and Eugene Finerman (board ID “EugeneF”) — were second and fourth, respectively.

I’ve come to know both of these stalwart gentlemen over the years. Steve, a semifinalist in the 1994 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions and quarterfinalist in the 2005 Ultimate Tournament of Champions, was the alternate in the 1998 Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains in which I participated, and was the captain and organizer of the Ruttersnipes, a pub trivia team featuring a collection of local Jeopardy! veterans plus San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. Eugene, a finalist in the 1987 Tournament of Champions and member of the Ultimate Tournament field, writes one of my favorite blogs, Your RDA of Irony, and is a frequent correspondent.

(You newbies who aren’t familiar with my experiences as a Jeopardy! champion can catch up with the rest of the class here.)

If you’re up for a bit of serious quiz mastery, drop over to the Jeopardy! forum and join the fun during the Summer Hiatus Challenge. You have nothing to lose but your dignity.

Comic Art Friday: Virtual SwanCon

July 24, 2009

As even the folks at Google have taken note, San Diego Comic-Con — the world’s largest gathering of comics creators, fans, and related media — is in full swing this weekend.

Google SDCC logo 2009I’ve never been to SDCC — I already have a major out-of-town trip every July, thanks to the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Convention — but I would like to make the trek downstate one of these years. Since that first visit won’t be this year, however, I thought we’d have our own little virtual comic art convention right here at SSTOL. SwanCon, if you will.

We’ve leafed through the archives to select a handful of artworks we’ve acquired at Bay Area comic cons during the past several years. These aren’t necessarily the best of our con commissions, but they represent an interesting cross-section of the pieces we’ve picked up. (You can click on any of the images for a better view.)

WonderCon 2005: Vixen by Buzz

Vixen, pencils and inks by comics artist Buzz

WonderCon 2006: The Black Panther by Ron Lim (inks supplied post-Con by Bob Almond)

The Black Panther, pencils by Ron Lim, inks by Bob Almond

WonderCon 2007: Supergirl by Aaron Lopresti

Supergirl, pencils and inks by comics artist Aaron Lopresti

WonderCon 2008: Mary Marvel by David Williams

Mary Marvel, mixed media art by comics artist David Williams

Super-Con 2006: Ms. Marvel by Buzz

Ms. Marvel, pencils and inks by comics artist Buzz

Super-Con 2007: Taarna by Alé Garza

Taarna, pencils and inks by comics artist Alejandro Garza

And’s that’s your Virtual SwanCon for 2009. If you happen to be reading this at SDCC, have fun. Oh… and bring me back something, will ya?

The threes of me

July 23, 2009

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog over the five years of its existence know that I’m not a fan of memes. You know, those little questionnaires or lists that are intended to give you something to write about on days when you can’t come up with something to write about (when I have those days, I — duh! — simply don’t write), and with which you’re supposed to “tag” your blogosphere buddies so that they, too, can participate in the merriment. (I’m not big on suggesting to other people what they ought to be writing about, any more than I’m a fan of being told what to write.)

I’m not, however, a total stick in the mud on the meme issue. Once in a blue moon, someone will tag me on a meme, and I’ll do it either because I like the person or the topic or both.

In this case, my friend Nathan tagged me with this list on Facebook. I enjoyed reading Nathan’s list, so I thought I’d return the favor. Ever the iconoclast, I’m doing the meme here rather than on Facebook, because this is where I write. And you can breathe easy — I’m not going to tag anyone, though you’re certainly welcome to pick up the ball and run with it if you’re thus inclined.

So, onward.

Three names by which I’m known.
1. Michael. This should be obvious, given that it’s my first name.
2. The Mic Guy. One of my chorus mates hung this one on me a dozen or so years ago, and it’s stuck so resolutely that I’m now using it as the brand for my voiceover business.
3. Uncle Swan. If you’re here, you know.

Three jobs I have had.
1. Receiving clerk. The year and a half that I was between colleges, I worked in a drug store. For most of the time, I was a sales clerk in the electronics department (we called it the camera department back in those pre-PC, cell phone, and iPod days). But for about six months, I ran the store’s warehouse, because the job was a prerequisite for management and someone above me was foolish enough to think that I might eventually aspire to managing a drug store. That person was sadly mistaken.
2. Radio advertising salesman. In my first job out of college, I worked in outside sales for a country music radio station. This will be hilarious to those of you who know that my affection for country music ranks somewhere between my fondness for serial pedophiles and my love for flesh-eating staphylococcus.* Right as I was arriving, the station was sold to some faceless corporation. One of the new owners’ first actions entailed firing half of the sales staff, yours truly included. In my case, the move was a relief — I sucked at advertising sales, and as for country music… I think we’ve covered that.
3. Radio Shack manager. In need of gainful employment following the redneck radio debacle, I wandered into my local Radio Shack store and filled out an application. (After all, I hold a university degree in broadcast communications.) Within a week, I had a job. Within three weeks, I was an assistant manager. After nearly a year of refusing promotion opportunities, I let them make me a store manager because they were going to fire me if I said “no” again. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Radio Shack.

* Nathan, who happens to be an actual card-carrying microbiologist, informs me that the flesh-eating bacteria is actually a strain of streptococcus, not staphylococcus. Here at SSTOL, we never allow scientific accuracy to get in the way of a good joke. As long as it’s not olympiaducoccus, it’s close enough for me.

Three places where I have lived. (Because I grew up in a military family, I could easily make this “Ten places where I have lived.” But in the spirit of the meme, I’ll pick three. And I’ll skip Hawaii, since I’ve written about that fairly recently.)
1. Iraklion (or Heraklion, if that’s how you roll), Crete, Greece. We were there for two years in the early 1970s. Lovely place, warm and friendly people, great food. Those sand fleas are murder, though.
2. Angeles City, Luzon, the Philippines. Another two-year stint for Uncle Sam, somewhat later in the Disco Decade. We arrived shortly after local despot Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. We left just as the Vietnam War was ending. Strange times indeed.
3. Abilene, Texas. I spent a decade there one year. At least, it felt that way. The most hellacious place I’ve ever lived, and there isn’t even a close runner-up. If you’re from Abilene, I apologize for airing your dirty laundry in public, but… deep in your heart, you know I speak the truth.

Three favorite drinks.
1. Cream soda. The good stuff — Thomas Kemper, Virgil’s, et al. — when I can get it on sale, but even the supermarket brand suffices in a pinch.
2. Vanilla Coke. Are you sensing a theme here?
3. The vanilla milkshakes Jack in the Box used to serve when I was in high school, before Jack botched the recipe and turned them into syrupy swill.

Three TV Shows that I watch.
1. Burn Notice. Hopefully they won’t have to stop production due to star Jeffrey Donovan’s recent DUI arrest. The world needs more Bruce Campbell. More Gabrielle Anwar isn’t a bad thing, either.
2. Chopped. I’ve been a devotee of competitive cooking shows since the original Iron Chef was on the air. Food Network’s latest entry in the genre is more of the same, with a fun twist or two. Plus, how could you not love a show called Chopped?
3. In Plain Sight. Who knew that Albuquerque was so exciting?

Three places I have been. (This, I suppose, as contrasted with places where I’ve lived for any length of time.)
1. Taipei, Taiwan. My family went on vacation there while we were in the Philippines. More people crammed into less space than anywhere else I’ve ever seen, aside from Tokyo. Beware the lunatic taxi drivers.
2. Athens, Greece. We made several jaunts to Athens during our years in Crete. Aside from San Francisco, the most visually compelling city I’ve ever visited.
3. Cities I’ve only seen from their respective airports: Paris, France; Rome, Italy; Frankfurt, Germany; Anchorage, Alaska; Agana, Guam. But at least I can honestly say that I’ve been there.

Three of my favorite foods.
1. Sushi. Among my top choices: unagi, tako, saba, ebi, tobiko, and when I can find the good stuff in season, otoro.
2. Mashed potatoes. Sometimes, the simplest things in life are best.
3. Chili — preferably my own, served with rice and plenty of hot sauce.

Three things to which I’m looking forward.
1. Pat Fraley’s workshop on voice acting for video games two weeks from Saturday. I had a terrific time in a workshop with Pat earlier this year, and am thrilled to have another chance to study with him.
2. The long-anticipated completion of a quartet of commissions that artist Darryl Banks is drawing for my Bombshells! gallery. Each depicts one of the four key female characters in Will Eisner’s legendary comic series, The Spirit. Darryl’s work on the first two pieces in the series has been stunning.
3. A manned landing on Mars, and a cure for cancer. When I dream, I dream big.

Moonwalkers, part two

July 21, 2009

As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, we continue with the second half of that most exclusive of clubs: men who have walked on the moon. (You can read about the first six moonwalkers here.)


7. David R. Scott, mission commander, Apollo 15. Reached the moon July 31, 1971.

Although Dave Scott finished fifth in his class at West Point, he joined the Air Force instead of the Army in order to pursue his dream of becoming a jet pilot. By the time he took command of Apollo 15, Scott was already a space veteran — he had accompanied Neil Armstrong on the glitch-plagued Gemini 8 mission, and had become the last American to orbit the Earth solo as the command module pilot on Apollo 9. He became the first member of Astronaut Group 3 to command a mission, and the first astronaut to lead a so-called “J Mission,” with an extended stay on the lunar surface (Scott and teammate Jim Irwin spent nearly three full days on the moon) and use of the Lunar Rover excursion vehicle.

Beyond the moon: Scott’s NASA career came to an abrupt end due to what came to be known as the Apollo 15 postage stamp incident. Scott, with the knowledge of his crew, had smuggled 398 commemorative stamp covers on his trip to the moon, and later sold 100 of the covers to Hermann Sieger, a collectibles dealer from Germany. The action was neither illegal or forbidden by NASA protocol, but when certain members of Congress got wind of the back-door business deal, political furor and Capitol Hill hearings ensued. As a result, neither Scott nor his two crewmates ever flew another space mission. (The 100 “Sieger covers” are now valued at between $15,000 and $18,000 each.) Today, Scott lives in the Los Angeles area and is a frequent consultant on film and television projects. He is 77 years old.

8. James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot, Apollo 15. Reached the moon July 31, 1971.

Like Dave Scott, Jim Irwin graduated from another service academy — in Irwin’s case, the U.S. Naval Academy — before joining the Air Force. Apollo 15 was Irwin’s first and only spaceflight, though he played key backup roles in training for two prior Apollo missions. The scientific nature of this particular mission required Irwin and Scott to undergo extensive training in geology — training that led to their discovery and identification of the so-called Genesis Rock, a chunk of lunar material believed to date from the formation of the moon.

Beyond the moon: Although Irwin never flew another NASA mission because of the aforementioned stamp incident, it’s likely that he would have been decertified for space in any event. He experienced cardiac symptoms during his and Scott’s time on the moon, and suffered a heart attack a few months after their return to Earth. Resigning from NASA in 1972, Irwin began a new career in ministry. He later led several unsuccessful expeditions to Turkey in search of the wreckage of Noah’s ark. Jim Irwin succumbed to a heart attack at his Colorado home in 1991 — the first of the moonwalkers to die, as well as the youngest. He was 61.

9. John W. Young, mission commander, Apollo 16. Reached the moon April 21, 1972.

Navy test pilot John Young was one of the graybeards of the Apollo program. He had already been into space three times before his trip to the moon — as pilot alongside Mercury veteran Gus Grissom on the first manned Gemini mission (Gemini 3); as command pilot aboard Gemini 10; and as command module pilot on Apollo 10, the second and final lunar orbital mission before Apollo 11‘s historic landing. During the latter mission, Young became the first man to orbit the moon solo, as his colleagues tested the lunar module. Commanding Apollo 16 earned Young an additional distinction as the first individual to make a return trip to lunar orbit.

Beyond the moon: John Young may well hold the title of NASA’s busiest astronaut. He continued with the  program into the Space Shuttle era — the only Mercury veteran to do so — and was at the helm for the Shuttle’s first space mission as well as one later flight. The first individual to make six journeys into space, Young is also the only person to have piloted four different types of spacecraft — a Gemini capsule, both Apollo vehicles (the command module and the lunar module), and the Shuttle. He retired from NASA in 2004 after 42 years in the space program. Young still lives in Houston, and is 78 years old.

10. Charles M. Duke, Jr., lunar module pilot, Apollo 16. Reached the moon April 21, 1972.

A Naval Academy graduate and Air Force pilot, Charlie Duke was already familiar to followers of the space program before his rookie flight on Apollo 16. It was Duke’s Carolina drawl at Mission Control that viewers heard speaking with Armstrong and Aldrin during the Apollo 11 moon landing. (Astronauts were frequently assigned capsule communicator, or “CAPCOM,” duties for flights on which they were not the designated backup crew.) Duke also had figured in the run-up to the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. As Apollo 13‘s backup lunar module pilot, Duke’s bout of rubella resulted in fellow astronaut Ken Mattingly — who had not previously been exposed to the disease — being removed from the mission and replaced with Jack Swigert. Mattingly then joined Duke and Young as Apollo 16‘s command module pilot.

Beyond the moon: Duke retired from NASA in 1975 and became a successful entrepreneur. He is also active as a speaker and consultant. At age 73, Duke is the youngest member of the moonwalkers’ fraternity.

11. Eugene A. Cernan, mission commander, Apollo 17. Reached the moon December 11, 1972.

Gene Cernan, the son of immigrants from eastern Europe, came to NASA as a Naval aviator and aeronautical engineer. His first space mission was the star-crossed Gemini 9, where Cernan and Thomas Stafford moved from backup to primary crew after the astronauts originally assigned were killed in a plane crash. On Apollo 10, Cernan served as lunar module pilot (with Stafford as mission commander), making him the only astronaut to have descended to the moon in a lunar module on two separate occasions — albeit without landing on the initial trip.

Although the 11th person to walk on the moon, Cernan also holds the current distinction of having been the last person to have accomplished the feat, as the second man to reboard the lunar module after Apollo 17‘s final EVA. Cernan spoke the final words to date by a human being standing on the lunar surface:

As we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I’d just like to record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. God speed the crew of Apollo 17.

Beyond the moon: Gene Cernan has spent most of his post-NASA career as a businessman and as a speaker on space-related topics. For a number of years, he was the regular spaceflight commentator for ABC News. He is the author of the autobiography Last Man on the Moon, which chronicles his astronaut years. In January of this year, Cernan appeared here in Santa Rosa at the Charles M. Schulz Museum for the opening of a space-themed Peanuts exhibit. Cernan is now 75 years old.

12. Harrison H. Schmitt, lunar module pilot, Apollo 17. Reached the moon December 11, 1972.

Harrison “Jack” Schmitt’s arrival on the moon was preceded by controversy. Originally, astronaut Joseph Engle had been scheduled as Apollo 17‘s lunar module pilot. When the final three Apollo missions were canceled, however, the scientific community that had so enthusiastically supported NASA insisted that a scientist — as opposed to a military officer (although Neil Armstrong had retired from the Navy before joining NASA) — should be part of the final moon mission of the era. Thus, Engle was replaced by Schmitt, a geologist with degrees from Caltech and Harvard — the only geological expert in the astronaut ranks.

Although Gene Cernan was vocal in his disapproval of Engle’s removal from his team, by all accounts he and Schmitt worked well together during their lunar excursion. During Apollo 17‘s outbound voyage, Schmitt snapped one of the most famous photographs ever taken — the shot of Earth from space usually referred to as “The Big Blue Marble.”

Beyond the moon: Schmitt left NASA in 1975 to run for the U.S. Senate. He served a single term as a Republican from New Mexico. After being defeated for reelection, Schmitt focused on consulting and education. Until last year, he chaired the NASA Advisory Council, a group of scientists, policymakers, and former astronauts charged with providing technical guidance to the NASA Administrator. Schmitt still lives in his native New Mexico, and is 74 years old.

And that’s it.

To this date, these are the only 12 people who have stood on the surface of the moon. No new member has joined their elite fraternity in almost 37 years.

Nine of the moonwalkers survive. Given that all nine are in their 70s, that status will likely not hold for long. It’s my sincere hope that at least some of them live long enough to see others do what they alone have done.

What a shame it would be for the human race if the moonwalkers — the representatives of our loftiest purpose, our greatest collective endeavor, our highest material achievement — became extinct.

As a citizen, I challenge President Obama, the members of Congress, and the administrators of NASA:

Ignore the naysayers.

Let’s go back to the moon.

And on to Mars.

Moonwalkers, part one

July 20, 2009

No, this is not a Michael Jackson post.


If you were five years or older on this date 40 years ago, you remember.

You remember the tingle of excitement. You remember the wonder. You remember the grainy images of two men in bulky white pressure suits and their static-charged banter with their handlers a quarter of a million miles away. And you remember the words:

That’s one small step for a man… one giant leap for mankind.

How could you not remember?

For the first time, human beings had set foot on the surface of another world.

Had you told me then, a third-grader basking in the glow of a cathode ray tube in a military-base townhouse in central Maine, that four decades later, the exclusive club opened on that amazing day by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would have a grand total of twelve members, I would not have believed you.

I find it nearly impossible to believe even now.

And yet, it’s true. Two generations after humans first stood on the moon, only a dozen of our kind have ever done so. None have accomplished the feat since 1972 — 37 years ago.

I think that’s one of our greatest failures. As a nation, and as a species. We gave up on the incredible, and began settling for the mundane.

In an effort to inspire ourselves, let’s reflect for a moment on those bold pioneers who first touched the stars.

1. Neil A. Armstrong, mission commander, Apollo 11. Reached the moon July 20, 1969.

A former U.S. Navy aviator and experienced test pilot, Armstrong was one of only two civilians selected in 1962 for NASA’s second astronaut group, dubbed “the New Nine.” He commanded the Gemini 8 mission, and had been forced to abort that flight early due to a malfunctioning attitude thruster. Armstrong was chosen to lead the first lunar landing because he was considered NASA’s most capable pilot in critical emergency situations.

Beyond the moon: Armstrong left NASA shortly after Apollo 11. He has worked mostly as an engineering consultant and member of several corporate boards of directors. Armstrong served on the panel that investigated the explosion that prematurely terminated the Apollo 13 mission, and was vice-chairman of the Rogers Commission, which investigated the destruction of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. He is now 78 years old.

2. Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., lunar module pilot, Apollo 11. Reached the moon July 20, 1969.

The MIT-educated Aldrin was a U.S. Air Force jet fighter and test pilot before joining NASA’s third astronaut group. His first spaceflight came as the pilot of Gemini 12, during which he undertook three EVAs (extra-vehicular activities, or “spacewalks”) totaling 5.5 hours. Aldrin’s experience working outside the spacecraft led to his selection for the Apollo 11 team. Aldrin’s “Contact light… okay… engine stop” as Apollo 11‘s lunar module Eagle came to rest were the first words ever spoken from the moon’s surface.

Beyond the moon: Aldrin’s early post-NASA years were marked by struggles with alcoholism and depression. He wrote about these difficulties in his 1973 autobiography Return to Earth, and more recently in its follow-up, Magnificent Desolation, published earlier this year. Aldrin has been and remains an active advocate for space exploration, and speaks extensively on the subject. The Disney/Pixar animated character Buzz Lightyear is named after Aldrin.

3. Charles M. (Pete) Conrad, Jr., mission commander, Apollo 12. Reached the moon November 19, 1969.

Pete Conrad overcame dyslexia to excel as a U.S. Navy aviator and flight instructor. At the time of his moon flight, Conrad was one of NASA’s most experienced astronauts, making his third trip into space aboard Apollo 12. Previously, Conrad had served as pilot on Gemini 5, and as commander aboard Gemini 11. Among the shortest members of the astronaut corps, the iconoclastic Conrad famously wisecracked about his size as he took his first step from the lunar module: “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”

Beyond the moon: Conrad was scheduled to return to the moon as commander of what would have been the Apollo 20 mission. The cancellation of the Apollo program found him instead as the initial commander of America’s first manned space station, Skylab. Conrad’s Skylab 2 crew (the Skylab 1 mission designation referred to the unmanned launch of the space station itself; the first launch of astronauts to the station was thus Skylab 2) set a space endurance record of 28 days. Leaving NASA, Conrad worked for McDonnell Douglas for 20 years. In 1996, he led a team that set the record for circumnavigating the globe in a Learjet. Conrad was killed in a motorcycle accident near his southern California home in 1999, at the age of 69.

4. Alan L. Bean, lunar module pilot, Apollo 12. Reached the moon November 19, 1969.

A member of NASA’s third astronaut group, Alan Bean was a former student of Pete Conrad’s at the Naval Flight Test School. The death of another astronaut in a motor vehicle accident opened an opportunity for Conrad to request Bean for his Apollo 12 crew.

Beyond the moon: Bean returned to space in 1973 as commander of the second Skylab crew, designated Skylab 3. After this record-setting mission, Bean served for several years as the civilian director of Astronaut Candidate Operations and Training. These days, he’s an accomplished artist who specializes in painting lunar landscapes. Bean also recently co-wrote, with fellow astronauts Owen Garriott and Joseph Kerwin, a book about the Skylab missions entitled Homesteading Space. Alan Bean lives is Houston and is 77.

5. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., mission commander, Apollo 14. Reached the moon February 5, 1971.

America’s first man in space became its oldest man on the moon when 47-year-old Mercury veteran Alan Shepard made his long-delayed return to active duty as commander of Apollo 14. Shepard had been deemed unfit for space for several years following his initial flight due to Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder. He spent the intervening years as Chief of the Astronaut Office until his condition was surgically corrected.

Ironically, Shepard replaced another member of the Mercury Seven, L. Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, on the team when Cooper was bumped due to his lackadaisical training habits and adversarial relationship with the NASA brass. Avid golfer Shepard made history in another way during his moon expedition, when he volleyed off a couple of golf shots into the lunar night with a jury-rigged six-iron (he attached the head of a Wilson club to the handle of a NASA-issued shovel).

Beyond the moon: Shepard resumed his duties as chief astronaut after Apollo 14. He retired in 1974 and became a successful entrepreneur. Moon Shot, a book Shepard coauthored with journalists Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict, formed the basis of a TV miniseries in 1994. Shepard died from leukemia in 1998, at the age of 74.

6. Edgar D. Mitchell, lunar module pilot, Apollo 14. Reached the moon February 5, 1971.

Ed Mitchell became a moonwalker on his one and only spaceflight. A member of NASA’s fifth astronaut class in 1966, the former Naval research pilot and flight instructor held a doctorate in aeronautics from what is now Carnegie Mellon University.

Beyond the moon: Mitchell is probably best known today for his widely publicized views on the paranormal. He conducted ESP experiments during the Apollo 14 mission, and believes that UFOs may actually be alien spacecraft. He has stated in interviews that the infamous Roswell, New Mexico event in 1947 was the crash of one such craft, and that NASA, the Pentagon, and other U.S. government agencies are involved in shielding the general public from the truth about evidence of visitors from other planets. Mitchell, now age 78, lives in West Palm Beach, Florida.

These are the first six. We’ll take a look at the other half of the Moonwalkers Club in tomorrow’s post.

Comic Art Friday: Suicide mission

July 17, 2009

Today, Comic Art Friday does the unusual. We’re talking about a comic book writer.

Were I to chart my Top Ten comics writers of all time — and I really ought to do that, one of these Fridays — John Ostrander would occupy a spot high on that list. Although he has written dozens of titles during his 25 years in the industry, Ostrander’s place in my authorial pantheon is assured by his creation of one of my favorite Modern Age (post-1980) series: DC’s Suicide Squad.


John was also the writer who transformed Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl, into the wheelchair-bound high-tech wizard Oracle. His other works include stints on such series as The Spectre, Martian Manhunter, Heroes for Hire, Magnus: Robot Fighter, and Grimjack, which he also co-created.

I share a personal connection with Ostrander, although we’ve never met. Like my wife KJ, John’s wife and frequent collaborator, Kim Yale, struggled with breast cancer for a number of years. Sadly, Kim lost her battle with the disease in 1997.

These days, Ostrander is fighting an enemy that no superhero he’s written (to my knowledge, anyway) has ever faced: glaucoma. John recently underwent a complex and costly surgery that doctors hope will, with careful follow-up attention, preserve his eyesight. The problem is — and when haven’t we heard this? — that John’s health insurance only partially covers this expensive care.

Ostrander’s colleagues and fans have banded together to spearhead Comix4Sight, an effort to help John pay for the medical services that could potentially keep him from going blind. The core of this campaign is an auction being held at the Chicago Comic-Con on Saturday, August 8. Donations are also being accepted via the Comix4Sight site.

What’s especially cool about this is that whatever funds are generated beyond what’s needed to cover Ostrander’s care will be donated to the Hero Initiative, the charitable organization that assists comic industry professionals in need. Thus, the campaign has the opportunity to benefit not just one comics creator, but possibly others as well.

I know that everyone’s tight on funds these days. But if you have a few extra shekels to spare, John Ostrander’s cause is worthy. Please help if you’re able.

Back to comic art — and that’s always our Friday focus — for just a moment. The amazing Suicide Squad commission you see above was created for me by Geof Isherwood, whose art — first as inker over Luke McDonnell’s pencils, then later as penciler with Robert Campanella inking — graced the second half of the original series’ run. Geof reunites four of the Squad’s key members from its early years: Vixen, Bronze Tiger, Nightshade, and Deadshot.

This beautifully rendered artwork was published in the January 2008 edition of Back Issue, on the opening page of the magazine’s Suicide Squad retrospective.

One other note, only tangentially related. I was sorry to read just now that Ellie Frazetta, the wife of renowned fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, passed away this morning after a year-long battle with cancer. I’ll be blunt: This cancer thing just flat-out sucks.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.


July 16, 2009

They’re down to the final table at the World Series of Poker’s Main Event tournament, and a couple of familiar faces are still in the mix.

My poker hero, Phil Ivey — a.k.a. The Tiger Woods of Poker — sits in seventh place. Phil has been on quite a roll at the WSOP this year, adding two victories in earlier tournaments to bring his career bracelet total to seven. Despite holding one of the shorter stacks at the Main Event final table, Phil will be the player to watch when the tournament finishes in November.

Also earning one of the coveted seats is Card Player Magazine publisher Jeff Shulman, making his second appearance at a Main Event final table. Shulman finished seventh back in 2000, the year Chris “Jesus” Ferguson won all the chips and the gold bracelet. Jeff will be in fourth place when play resumes.

As has become the norm at the WSOP, the chip leader is an unknown — Darvin Moon, who’s said to be a lumberjack from Maryland. (I don’t know whether there’s any validity to the rumor that Moon puts on women’s clothing and hangs around in bars.)

The complete final table, with current chip counts, looks like this:

1. Darvin Moon – 58,930,000
2. Eric Buchman – 34,800,000
3. Steven Begleiter – 29,885,000
4. Jeff Shulman – 19,580,000
5. Joseph Cada – 13,215,000
6. Kevin Schaffel – 12,390,000
7. Phil Ivey – 9,765,000
8. Antoine Saout – 9,500,000
9. James Akenhead – 6,800,000

I’m still not sold on the gimmick, begun last year, of stopping the Main Event when the final table is set, and continuing play in November. I understand the logic — it affords four months to build suspense and public awareness, and gives ESPN a big event to broadcast during the fall ratings sweeps — but it just seems stupid to halt a tournament in mid-game and take 16 weeks off before resuming. It would be like baseball holding the divisional playoffs and league championship series in October, then not playing the World Series until the following spring. All of the momentum — for both participants and spectators — is gone.

But that’s yet another reason why I’m not in charge.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to spend four months listening to the onrushing footsteps of Phil Ivey. Then again, considering that every member of the November Nine is guaranteed a minimum $1.2 million payday…

…I think I’d get over it.

Angels in the outfield

July 15, 2009

The last time I attended a major league baseball game at a park outside of my hometown Bay Area was way back in the early 1980s, when I caught a couple of games at Dodger Stadium during my days at Pepperdine University.

So, when I found myself headed for Anaheim at the beginning of this month — you’ve already read about that, haven’t you? — I thought it might be fun to check out a tilt at Angel Stadium, the home of the most ridiculously named team in professional sports, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. (Most ridiculous, that is, next to my beloved Golden State Warriors, whose geographical designation makes them sound like a Division III collegiate squad from Colorado.)

Fortunately for me, the Angels were hosting the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday afternoon as I was bound for home. Online ticket in hand and Giants cap on my head, I joined the throng at the Big A (do they still call it the Big A?) for a dose of the national pastime in the southern California sun.

My impressions…

We Giants fans are totally getting ripped off on parking fees. Whenever I go to a game in San Francisco, it costs me $30 to stash my minivan in a lot two blocks from AT&T Park. In Anaheim, I paid a paltry eight bucks to park in a lot right on the property — close enough that with a decent tailwind, I could have hit the side of the stadium with a well-hurled baseball. The parking lot attendant enjoyed a good chuckle at my out-of-towner’s incredulity over how cheap the tariff was.

Angel Stadium is a pretty decent place to watch a game. It’s not as stunning as AT&T — then again, what is? — but it’s nicely designed, with good sightlines, easy accessibility, and a touch of character.

The Angel Stadium customer service staff gets an A for effort. I had no less than five polite, friendly folk pause unbidden to help direct me to my seat. And I wasn’t sitting all that far from the front entrance.

Angels fans, on the other hand, must be the least involved spectators anywhere. I was dumbfounded by how quiet the crowd was — and this was an exciting, high-scoring, come-from-behind victory for the home team. At both Bay Area parks, and especially at AT&T, you’ll hear a constant stream of individually self-directed chatter from the stands, aimed at the players on the field: “Let’s go, Giants!” “Throw strikes, Zito!” “Come on, Pablo, crank one!” That sort of thing. There was none of that in Anaheim. Oh, sure, the Angels fans clapped and cheered when a member of their team got a hit — Vladimir Guerrero’s two-run jack in the bottom of the fifth even yanked them from their seats — or made a good play. They made noise when the scoreboard operator cued them to do so (usually with a caption that read, “Make Noise!”). But they didn’t engage in the kind of random, freelance byplay to which I’m accustomed.

Everything you hear about SoCal physical culture is true. The petite female half of the couple seated next to me sported a prominent pair of mammary accessories that clearly reflected the talents of an expensive surgeon rather than the hand of Mother Nature. And she didn’t lack for company. Doc Hollywood must be making a fortune.

No matter where you go, ballpark concessions are exorbitantly overpriced. I didn’t eat anything during the game, but my lone Diet Pepsi set me back $5.25. I wanted a drink, not a seat at the stockholders’ meeting.

Tough to judge by one game, but the Angels look like a terrible defensive team. I’m mostly a National League aficionado, so I haven’t seen Anaheim play all that much. They were charged with two errors in this game, and a less charitable scorekeeper could have tagged them with a couple more. If that’s indicative of their usual play, it’s a good thing they can hit.

The Angels can definitely hit. See above.

That Rally Monkey is darned cute. I especially enjoyed the film vignettes played on the Angel Stadium scoreboard, which digitally incorporate the Anaheim mascot — a hyperactive capuchin monkey clad in a miniature Angels jersey — into clips from several popular motion pictures, including Shrek and Night at the Museum. I don’t get the connection between angels and monkeys, but somehow, it works. After the game, I hied myself into the nearest souvenir shop and bought my daughter a stuffed Rally Monkey. (I’m still angry about the ’02 World Series, though.)

You can’t make baseball any more convenient than the Angels do. Within a one-block drive of the stadium, I was on Interstate 5 and aimed for home. If only it was that easy to get in and out of China Basin post-game.

Anaheim is not in Los Angeles. Obvious, I know. But it deserves repeating.