Archive for September 2009

Comic Art Friday: American Flaggs!

September 25, 2009

Of the 87 artworks in my Common Elements commission gallery, I’ve only had the opportunity to witness the creation of a small fraction. Four pieces in the series — two by penciler Ron Lim and inker Danny Bulanadi, and two by the great Tony DeZuniga — were drawn before my eyes at comic book conventions. Another, by Darick Robertson, was crafted during a signing event at my local comics shop.

Until recently, however, I’d never watched a Common Elements commission come into being via the magic of the Internet.

John Beatty is best known to comics aficionados as an inker, in partnership with such pencil artists as Mike Zeck (on the groundbreaking miniseries Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, and for lengthy runs as the interior artists on Captain America and as cover artists on G.I. Joe), Kelley Jones (Batman), and Michael Golden (the war adventure The ‘Nam). Like many of the best inkers, John is also a terrific penciler in his own right. His drawing style, which to my eye reflects the influence of Jack Kirby — although it’s fair to say that almost every superhero artist of the past 50 years borrows at least a smattering of influence from Kirby — led me to commission him to draw this pairing of Kirby’s Captain America pastiche Fighting American and Reuben Flagg, the antihero of Howard Chaykin’s satirical series, American Flagg!

Fighting American and American Flagg, pencils and inks by comics artist John Beatty

Fighting American has an interesting backstory. Created in 1954 by Kirby and his longtime creative partner Joe Simon — the same team who created Captain America nearly a decade and a half earlier — Fighting American reflected the anti-Communist paranoia of the McCarthy era. The character, whose original 1950s run lasted a brief seven issues, played like an over-the-top parody of the patriotic Cap, battling Red Menace stereotypes with names like Poison Ivan. It’s hard to tell whether Kirby and Simon were feeding off the tenor of the times or spoofing it, but I vote for the latter.

Unfortunately, as too often happens in comics, the character later fell into the hands of lesser talents who didn’t get the joke. When it comes to comics, “talents” hardly get “lesser” than those of Rob Liefeld, the poster boy for everything that went wrong with the industry in the 1990s. Liefeld’s Awesome Entertainment turned Kirby and Simon’s character into yet another of his own innumerable hyperviolent (and horrifically drawn) adolescent fantasies. Marvel Comics sued Liefeld for introducing elements into the Fighting American mythos that smacked too strongly of Captain America (which character Liefeld had drawn for Marvel before striking out on his own), including a Cap-like shield. (A compromise was reached between the companies which allowed Liefeld’s character to keep his shield, but not to use it as a throwing weapon.)

Like Fighting American, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! was a parody of its era — in the latter case, the ultraconservative Ronald Reagan ’80s. Chaykin’s series portrayed a near-future America in which the global economy crashed, the axes of power shifted (the most powerful nations on Earth became Brazil and a united Africa), and the U.S. government relocated to Mars to ride out the crisis. In the midst of it all, an out-of-work actor named Reuben Flagg lived out his former television role as a Plexus Ranger, a member of the cowboyesque police force sponsored by the Mars-based government and its corporate sponsors.

The quality of American Flagg! waxed and waned, depending largely on the connection Chaykin maintained with the project — which, after the first couple of years, wasn’t much. Still, the series provided an often-intriguing commentary on then-current events and attitudes, flavored with Chaykin’s penchant for ribald humor and wacky visuals.

Speaking of wacky visuals, when John Beatty took a look at the characters I’d assigned for his Common Elements commission, he decided to poke a bit of fun at the more ridiculous aspects of their respective costumes. Thus, his Fighting American is puzzled by the cowboy boots in Reuben Flagg’s Plexus Ranger ensemble, while Reuben wonders why his compatriot has donned his underwear on top of his tights. A hilarious idea, which John carried off beautifully.

As mentioned above, I had the privilege of watching John draw this piece online, thanks to modern technology. You, should you be so inclined, can check out the recorded video version. John was joined for the event by comic art collector (and noted Sylvester Stallone buff) Craig Zablo, and their lively banter about life and comics proved both insightful and entertaining. The entire presentation runs four hours — never fear, you can skip ahead as you wish — and is divided into two segments.

Here’s the link to Part One.

Here’s the link to Part Two.

Thanks to John Beatty for his outstanding artwork, and for allowing me to share the links to his video. If you enjoy John’s presentation, there’s also an edited video on YouTube chronicling the birth of my aforementioned Darick Robertson commission. You’re welcome to partake of that one as well.

By the way, there’s a Common Element between today’s two featured heroes that isn’t as obvious as it might appear. In addition to their similar themes and satirical approaches, both characters share the same surname — Fighting American’s secret identity is Nelson Flagg. Maybe he and Reuben are related, in a transdimensional sort of way.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Searching for Carmen Sandiego closer to home

September 24, 2009

…but not in San Diego, because I’ve been there several times. Not that I wouldn’t like to go back, but that’s not the point of this post.

In yesterday’s post, I listed several — thirteen, in all — locations around the world that I missed seeing when I was an Air Force brat in the 1960s and ’70s, but would like to visit someday if I had unlimited resources.

The fact is, though, that there are plenty of places right here in the United States that I wouldn’t mind checking out, but have never had the opportunity. Without further ado, here’s the domestic list.

Ashland, Oregon. I’ve actually driven through Ashland — at least, I’ve skirted it on the Interstate — so technically, it doesn’t belong on a list of “places I’ve never been.” But I’d love to spend a week or two at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which takes place there.

Seattle, Washington. Three reasons: (1) to see the Space Needle, a triumph of Googie architecture; (2) to visit the Pike Place Market, to watch the fishmongers toss their wares about (and perhaps dine on a few — wares, not fishmongers); and (3) to drink lots and lots of coffee.

Santa Fe, New Mexico. A noted artistic community, which means I’d fit right in. In contrast to its creative reputation, it’s one of the few U.S. cities of any size with a consistent, governmentally imposed architectural style.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. I hear from people who’ve been there that it isn’t quite as awesome in person as it seems like it would be from photographs, but I prefer to decide that sort of thing for myself.

New Orleans, Louisiana. Great music, great food. I’ll just plan to go when they’re not expecting a flood.

Orlando, Florida. It seems weird that a Disney geek such as myself has never made a pilgrimage to Walt Disney World, but such is life. I’d like to rectify that shortcoming. Not that there’s anything wrong with the original Disneyland — because there isn’t. I’d still want to check out the Big Kahuna.

Key West, Florida. As a writer, I have to drop in here at least once, don’t I? And, as a kid who spent several years in Hawaii, I’m down with the whole tropical vibe. Remind me to skip hurricane season.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Not because it’s the Cradle of Liberty, and not for the plethora of historic sites, as interesting as those would be to tour. No, I just want to do my own onsite comparison of cheesesteak joints.

New York City, New York. Another location that doesn’t entirely qualify as a “never been there,” because I’ve flown into and out of both Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. Those airports, however, constitute the sum total of my NYC experience. I’ve gotta figure there’s more of the Naked City to see than just tarmac.

Westbrook, Maine. At first blush, an incongruous choice. My best friend from high school and her family — including her youngest child, my goddaughter, whom I’ve never seen in person — live there. More than reason enough for me.

Separate from any individual destination, I’d love to spend a summer traveling from one Major League Baseball park to another, until I’d seen a series in every park that I’ve never visited — which would include every park other than our local venues (AT&T Park and the Oakland Coliseum) and the two Greater L.A. sites (Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium).

In search of Carmen Sandiego

September 23, 2009

As a youngster, I was fortunate enough to travel to — and live in — several exotic locations, thanks to the U.S. Air Force — of which I was a dependent for the first 15 years of my life.

Ironically, as an adult, I haven’t again left my home country. I haven’t even ventured out of my adopted home state of California for more than a week or two at a time. I satisfy most of my residual wanderlust by watching the Travel Channel.

Not that I have all that much burning desire to return to my globetrotting childhood, but if I ever luck into a multimillion-dollar disposable income (or, alternatively, an overwhelming abundance of frequent flier miles to burn), here are some of the places to which I’d journey.

London, United Kingdom. The heart of English-speaking culture, with a history stretching back to the Roman Empire. I’d be willing to tolerate the dreadful food — or just eat plenty of fish and chips — just to wander the streets singing “London by Night” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”

Barcelona, Spain. One of my interests is unusual architecture — I should post about my Googie fetish sometime — of which Barcelona is a world capital, thanks to the work of Art Nouveau pioneer Antoni Gaudi.

Cairo, Egypt. A wealth of uniquely Islamic architecture. It’s also just a quick trip to Giza, home of the greatest architectural wonders of the ancient world, the Pyramids and the Sphinx.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Let’s see… the world’s tallest structure (Burj Dubai), the world’s tallest hotel (Rose Tower), the world’s tallest hotel shaped like a ship’s sail and built on an artificial island (Burj Al Arab), the world’s largest shopping mall (the prosaically named Dubai Mall), and one of the most unusual developments ever conceived (the Palm Jumeirah)? Yeah, I’m there.

Nairobi, Kenya. Where else in the world can you walk through a wild animal habitat immediately adjacent to a major city? I’ll take an empty suitcase just for bringing home coffee.

Hong Kong, China. Blending the best of Eastern and Western culture. Plus, they have their own Disneyland. How cool is that? While I’m in that part of the world, I might as well check out the Great Wall too.

Agra, India. A hub of historically beautiful buildings from the Mughal era, of which the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, and Fatehpur Sikri are the best known.

Sydney, Australia. They’ll slip a shrimp on the barbie for me. And there’s also that Opera House.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Doesn’t everyone have to experience Carnival once in a lifetime? Watch yourself, though — Rio might be one of the most dangerous metropoli in the world.

Rapa Nui (Easter Island). I’ve been fascinated by the moai — the 887 massive stone statues that dot the island — since I was a kid.

Machu Picchu, Peru. The fabled Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu offers an excellent opportunity to gain insight into what the New World was like before the Europeans invaded.

The Panama Canal. One of the most monumental feats of engineering in human history, it’s hard to fathom (no pun intended) that the Canal is nearly 100 years old (it opened in 1914).

Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Cancun, Cozumel, and the ruins at Chichen Itza. Need I say more?

Tomorrow, I’ll list a few places right here in the good old U.S. of A. that I’ve never visited, but would like to someday.

He may be no Angel

September 21, 2009

This might just be the most improbable event in an improbable season for the San Francisco Giants.

Angel Villalona, a 19-year-old slugging catcher-turned-first baseman considered the hottest prospect in the Giants’ minor league system as recently as six months ago, was charged today with murder in his native Dominican Republic.

Authorities in Santo Domingo allege that Villalona shot and killed 25-year-old Mario Felix de Jesus Velete in a bar last weekend. Villalona is pleading not guilty.

Villalona was the biggest bonus baby in Giants’ history when he signed with San Francisco in 2006. His $2.1 million signing bonanza outstripped the first-contract cash paid to such stellar talents as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, who currently form two-fifths of the Giants’ starting rotation.

After some initial success in the low minors (17 home runs, 64 runs batted in, and 29 doubles in the South Atlantic League last summer), Villalona’s progress slowed this year at Class-A San Jose, hitting an unremarkable .267 with nine home runs before a season-ending leg injury.

If convicted of murder in the D.R., Villalona faces a minimum sentence of 20 years. The Giants face a loss of $2.1 million and a bucketful of potential.

That’s baseball.

Talk Like a Pirate Day, it be!

September 19, 2009

Avast there, me bucko! Wandered into shark-infested waters here, ye have…

That’s because today, it be International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

International Talk Like a Pirate Day be September 19!

Fer those of ye who ain’t up to snuff on yer piratin’ lore, International Talk Like a Pirate Day was plotted out many hurricane seasons ago by a coupl’a salty bilge-rats callin’ themselves Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket. (Their real names be Mark Summers an’ John Baur… but let’s be leavin’ that information in the ol’ treasure chest.) It be a special time to get in touch with yer inner buccaneer, and let the scurvy swashbuckler out!

Yer ol’ pal Cap’n Swan ain’t much fer holidays, but he’s got ‘im a soft place in his furbelows for Talk Like a Pirate Day. So if ye be droppin’ by Casa de Swan today, ye best prepared to get yer pirate on… or ye’ll be walkin’ the plank at the point o’ me cutlass!

All together now, ye lice-infested swabbies and lusty wenches…


Feels pretty good, don’t it?

Last year, when Talk Like a Pirate Day fell on Comic Art Friday, Cap’n Swan ran a special feature up the yardarm, considerin’ which o’ his favorite superheroes and superheroines might enjoy theirselves most on this auspicious occasion. Some mighty fine pictures in this one, so ye might be wantin’ to sail yerself over to the SSTOL archives an’ reminisce.

Now, off with ye! Cap’n Swan’s got himself some timbers to shiver. If ye don’t want to run afoul of the Shadowy Legend of the Seven Seas — as Cap’n Swan be known far and wide in the piratin’ community — ye had best be slingin’ the lingo like a privateer from the Caribee all day today!

Don’t say ye ain’t been warned, me hearties. Dead men tell no tales!

(By the way, Ol’ Chumbucket be a Jeopardy! veteran, just like Cap’n Swan here. Let it be known, though, that Cap’n Swan actually pirated a mess o’ doubloons from the S.S. Trebekathon, while Ol’ Chumbucket had to content his scalawaggedness with a steamer trunk full o’ lovely partin’ gifts. )

Comic Art Friday: Three cats, 9 Lives

September 18, 2009

Two weeks ago, we took our first peek at artist Gene Gonzales’s spectacular creation for my Common Elements theme, entitled “Catfight of the Bands!” Last Friday, we focused the spotlight on one of the two bands featured, the ever-popular Josie and the Pussycats.

In today’s third and final installment, we’ll showcase the other feline ensemble — a three-piece combo which, in contrast with Josie and her pals’ lengthy career in comic books, TV animation, musical recordings, and live-action feature film, exists nowhere except in the imaginations of Mr. Gonzales and myself.

Catwoman and the Black Cats, pencils and inks by comics artist Gene Gonzales

It was Gene’s inspiration to dub our impromptu trio “9 Lives.” Clockwise from the left, that’s Selina (Catwoman) Kyle on guitar and vocals, Felicia (The Black Cat) Hardy on drums, and Linda (The Black Cat) Turner on bass.

Yes, I realize that we have two Black Cats. More on that momentarily.

Catwoman — known in her earliest appearances as simply The Cat — debuted in the very first issue of Batman’s eponymous comic, way back in 1940. Originally, Selina Kyle was a Gotham City socialite who moonlighted as a (you’re way ahead of me) cat burglar. Throughout the Golden Age, the renamed Catwoman vacillated between heroism — she worked alongside the Caped Crusader on several occasions — and villainy.

She became a full-time member of Batman’s rogues’ gallery in 1966, just in time for the campy ABC television series, in which she was portrayed by two actresses — Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt. (Former Miss America Lee Meriwether, a costar on the sci-fi series Time Tunnel, would assume the role for the Batman feature film concocted to capitalize on the show’s meteoric popularity.) Catwoman would again be established in the public consciousness as a villain, thank to Tim Burton’s 1992 film Batman Returns.

Batman and Catwoman, pencils by Al Rio, inks by Geof Isherwood

In recent years, DC Comics has cast Catwoman more frequently in a positive light. Since the 1990s, she has headlined two separate series in which she has behaved more or less in traditionally superheroic fashion. The second Catwoman series, which was canceled earlier this year, featured a dazzling array of cover art by Adam Hughes.

During her lengthy career, Selina has worn a dozen or more different costumes. The dress/cowl/cape version she wears in “Catfight” is my favorite of her many outfits — and, as it happens, a favorite of artist Gonzales as well. Above, penciler Al Rio and inker Geof Isherwood depict Catwoman in her modern-era catsuit and goggles.

Only a few months after Catwoman’s debut, Harvey Comics — a company better known for juvenile humor titles such as Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich — presented its own feline-themed superheroine. Movie actress and stuntwoman Linda Turner donned a mask, swimsuit, and buccaneer boots to fight crime as the Black Cat. Linda was often assisted in her exploits by the male version of Lois Lane, newspaper reporter Rick Horne, who — in the manner of the famously clueless Miss Lane — never seemed to tumble to the fact that Linda Turner and the Black Cat were the same woman.

Linda managed to maintain her secret for a decade, until her series was canceled in 1951. A vast assortment of creators chronicled her adventures, most prominently British-born artist Lee Elias, who drew the Black Cat from 1946 through the end of her run.

Although the Black Cat possessed no paranormal abilities, her training in stunt work provided her with a host of handy skills for busting evildoers. Among her most prominent talents was her deftness in handling a motorcycle. Here, penciler James E. Lyle and inker Bob Almond catch the Cat dealing a bad guy a crushing kick from aboard her favorite two-wheeled transport.

The Black Cat (Linda Turner), pencils by James E. Lyle, inks by Bob Almond

As often happens in comics when a good superhero name goes unused long enough for the trademark to expire, Marvel unleashed its own Black Cat in 1979. Though she shared her nom de guerre with her predecessor Linda Turner, Felicia owed much more of her character to Selina Kyle. Like Catwoman, the modern Black Cat began her career as a cat burglar and jewel thief, and was primarily a villain for most of her early appearances. Also like Selina, Felicia eventually reformed — more or less — and recently served as a member of the superteam Heroes for Hire.

Another key commonality between Marvel’s Black Cat and DC’s Catwoman is their love connection to their respective companies’ marquee superheroes. As Catwoman is to Batman, the Black Cat is to Spider-Man. Felicia and the web-slinging Peter Parker have shared an on-again, off-again affair for 30 years — in real-world years, of course. Below, penciler Jeffrey Moy and inker W.C. (Cory) Carani — a duo best known for a lengthy run on Legion of Super-Heroes — portray Spidey and Felicia at their battling best.

Spider-Man and the Black Cat, pencils by Jeffrey Moy, inks by W.C. Carani

A cat may have nine lives, but a Catfight of the Bands requires three weeks of Comic Art Friday goodness. Once again, my sincere thanks to Gene Gonzales for his masterful creation.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Don’t forget… tomorrow is International Talk Like a Pirate Day! Ye best limber yer lips, or Cap’n Swan’ll keel-haul ye!

A poem… by Henry Gibson

September 16, 2009

I doubt that it will attract the notice that the passing of Patrick Swayze garnered, but character actor Henry Gibson also died earlier this week.

Like most TV viewers, I first was introduced to the mousy, soft-spoken comic actor on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Gibson would appear, wearing a quaint suit and holding an enormous artificial flower, to recite a humorous, often ironic rhyme about some innocuous subject. His bits always began with Gibson’s quavering, deadpan monotone, “A poem… by Henry Gibson.” His presentations concluded with a bow and a self-effacing, “Thank you.”

Gibson turned up frequently on television in his post-Laugh-In career, usually playing the kind of nebbishy, passive-aggressive types for whom he became famous. Most notably, he was a regular on the ABC series Boston Legal, as the put-upon Judge Brown. He also appeared in numerous films, including the recent hit Wedding Crashers, and earned a Golden Globe nomination for his work in Robert Altman’s Nashville.

My favorite Gibson role was his voicing of Wilbur — the humble, radiant pig whose best friend is a talented spider — in the animated adaptation of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. The casting was perfect, with Gibson bringing a delightful, plucky innocence to the role.

Until today, I did not know that Henry Gibson wasn’t really Henry Gibson. The actor, who was born James Bateman, took his familiar stage name as a pun on playwright Henrik Ibsen. I remember long ago noting the sonic similarity between the two names, but I’d always assumed that this was merely a coincidence.

I thought it appropriate that, in Gibson’s memory, we offer the following verse.

A poem… about Henry Gibson.
He always brought us laughter
When with blossom he’d appear;
His charming bits of doggerel
Made us grin from ear to ear.
As years passed, we discovered
He could also play things straight;
His talents as an actor
Proved nothing less than great.
We always will remember
This quirky little fellow;
His voice odd and distinctive…
His sunflower, bright yellow.

Thank you, Henry.