Archive for February 2010

Comic Art Friday: Connections

February 12, 2010

This is a story about connections.

The Black Panther, pencils and inks by comics artist Brent Anderson

The other night, I was surfing cable TV’s bounty when I stumbled across Man-Thing, the ultra-low-budget cheapie thriller based on Marvel Comics’ swamp monster character, on the channel now ludicrously named Syfy. I knew of this film only by its sullied reputation, which was at least part of the reason why I’d avoided it before now. On this particular evening, however, quality offerings proved to be in scarce supply, so I thought, what the heck — let’s watch a bit of this.

Before you ask: Yes, the Man-Thing movie is as wretched as you’ve heard. (And if you’ve not heard, well, consider your life charmed.) It did, though, spawn in me a desperate craving to read an actual Man-Thing comic book. Now, I haven’t had such an item lying about the house since, oh, 1978 or thereabouts. But my desire for oozy primordial goodness was not to be denied. I had to score me some Man-Thing.

(Okay… that didn’t come out quite the way I intended. Pressing on…)

A quick online search turned up a listing of every Marvel book in which Man-Thing had ever appeared. Lo and behold, the fetid forest-dweller pulled a guest shot in Uncanny X-Men #144 (April 1981). I turned to the rack beside me and snagged my DVD-ROM archiving 40 years of X-Men comics. Into the laptop went the disc, and within moments, I was savoring the tale of the merry mutants’ battle against the villain D’Spayre, with a special appearance by none other than — you’re way ahead of me — Man-Thing.

As I perused the story, it struck me that the artwork in this particular issue was markedly different from the style I normally associate with this period in X-Men history. Specifically, it wasn’t the work of penciler John Byrne and inker Terry Austin, who drew the X-Men’s adventures for more than three years, beginning in late 1977. I vaguely recalled that Byrne had been displaced in early 1981 by the return of Dave Cockrum, who co-created the modern version of the X-Men in 1975 and drew their series until Byrne’s arrival. But this definitely wasn’t Cockrum’s work, either. Both Cockrum and Byrne (especially Byrne as inked by Austin) had, at least at this point in their respective careers, distinctive styles that would be difficult to mistake for anyone else’s.

I paged back through the PDF file to the opening splash for a look at the issue’s credits. To my surprise, I discovered that the penciler of Uncanny X-Men #144 was Brent Anderson, in what must surely have been one of his earliest published jobs.

Although Brent’s first regular series (at Marvel, in the early ’80s) was the Tarzan knockoff Ka-Zar the Savage, he became a major star later in the decade illustrating one of the most unusual comics of all time — Strikeforce: Morituri, about an X-Men-like squad of manufactured superhumans who routinely died gruesome deaths as a result of the process that gave them their powers. (Morituri is a Latin word meaning “We who are about to die.” Spring that one on your buddies sometime this week.) Today, Brent is best known as writer Kurt Busiek’s artistic collaborator on the long-running series Astro City.

As I said at the start, this is a story about connections. Brent Anderson is a local guy. In fact, he lives just a few miles away, in the town where my wife KJ worked for the past several years. He also happens to be a friend of Kathy Bottarini, the beloved proprietor of my hometown comic book shop.

Brent’s Black Panther sketch, which adorns the opening of today’s post, was commissioned at WonderCon three years ago. Brent didn’t have time to complete the drawing until the last day of the con, after I had finished my sojourn there. He graciously dropped it off at Kathy’s shop a couple of weeks later, where she kept it safe until I called for it.

See? Connections.

On that subject…

Brent’s pencils in Uncanny X-Men #144 were inked by Joe Rubinstein, who would also ink the next several issues of the series as Dave Cockrum resumed his penciling duties. Joe has probably inked just about every major character — and thousands of minor ones — published by the Big Two comics concerns during his now-legendary career, beginning in the early ’70s.

In between comics projects, Joe takes on commissioned work, including several pieces for yours truly over the last half-dozen years. The very first piece Joe ever inked for me was this lovely portrait of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, drawn by Dan Jurgens. It’s still a personal favorite.

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, pencils by Dan Jurgens, inks by Joe Rubinstein

And yet another connection.

Thank you, friend reader, for connecting with me today. And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

This disc has flown

February 11, 2010

A moment of silence, please, in memory of the late Walter Fredrick “Fred” Morrison, who shuffled off this mortal coil earlier this week.

Who was Fred Morrison? I’m glad you asked, friend reader, for indeed this esteemed gentleman played an essential role in my formative years.

Fred Morrison, you see, invented the Frisbee.

Morrison got the idea for his legendary sporting device from tossing a cake pan around when he was young. In 1948, after extensive research into the aerodynamics of bakeware, Morrison began marketing a modified, plastic version of the pan under the trade name Pluto Platter. After Morrison’s initial success, Wham-O Manufacturing bought the rights to the product and changed its name to Frisbee.

As the story goes, the name Frisbee came from a New England bakery — the Frisbie Pie Company — whose aluminum pans were already popular with college students for their fun-flinging capabilities. Wham-O, recognizing a marketable buzzword when they heard one, borrowed the name for Morrison’s flying discs.

The rest, as they say in the sporting goods business, is history.

Here in Rohnert Park, the Frisbee holds a lofty place in our local lore. In the 1970s, Sonoma State University was one of the last remaining bastions of bohemian — dare I use the word hippie? — subculture. Among the hallmarks of Granola State — as the university was often nicknamed in those tie-dyed, macraméd days — was the colorful fusillade of Frisbees that could be seen sailing across its verdant lawns on any sunny afternoon.

Although I didn’t attend SSU, I did obtain my final two years of secondary education on the campus immediately adjacent. Thus, I spent more than my fair share of time hurling a plastic plate to and fro with my friends.

Ah, youth.

Cameron Crowe’s novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High contains a hilarious scene that was, sadly, excluded from the hit film based on the book. In it, a couple of arrested postadolescents in the employ of Wham-O visit the school to perform a Frisbee demonstration. These self-important jocks insist that their sporting device of choice be referred to as “the disc,” because calling it a Frisbee would be plebeian and therefore uncool. (The pair collect the phone numbers of several Ridgemont females before taking their leave.)

There is, I’m told, no truth to the rumor that instead of being buried, Fred Morrison’s remains were simply cast willy-nilly upon the roof of a nearby house, and abandoned there.

As fitting as that might have been.

Comic Art Friday: Going batty

February 5, 2010

In an era when sexual sensationalism sells, DC Comics made a major media splash a few years ago by announcing that Batwoman — a character who’d been killed off way back in 1979 — was being revived as a lesbian.

The irony of this was that the entire reason that there had ever been a Batwoman in the first place was to “prove” that Batman and Robin weren’t gay. Go figure.

Me, I think whatever Batwoman does in the privacy of her own Batcave (okay, let’s not go there) is Batwoman’s business — much like your own, friend reader. At any rate, it’s the original 1956 version of Kathy (Batwoman) Kane — not the New Millennium version, who prefers to be known as Kate — who’s “going batty” in this Bombshells! pinup by inker extraordinaire (Deadpool, Civil War: Front Line) John Lucas.

Bombshell! Batwoman, pencils and inks by comics artist John Lucas

For those of you who may be new around these parts, Bombshells! is the second of my two comic art commission themes. This series features classic superheroines — “classic” for this purpose being arbitrarily defined as characters whose first published appearance dates prior to 1960 — in pinups styled after vintage aviation nose art.

When I commission a Bombshells! drawing, my instructions to the artist are always minimal — “a babe, a bomb, and a tagline” is generally as far as I go, beyond providing a reference picture or two of the character to be drawn. I’m perfectly delighted when I get exactly what I asked for. Every now and again, though, an artist decides to go whole hog with the project. I think it’s fair to say that “Joltin’ Johnny” dove into this one with both feet.

It’s tough to pinpoint which facet of the finished art tickles me most: Lucas’s impeccably detailed, serious-yet-whimsical drawing style; his expressive character work; his unexpected added touches — the cloud formation that turns into a bat’s head; Batwoman’s shadow-puppet bat hand gesture; the bat-shaped clasp on her shoulder bag — that bring the artwork to life. Whatever I focus on, John’s sense of fun shines through. And isn’t that what comics are supposed to be about?

Speaking of Batwoman’s shoulder bag, I’m trying to think of another superheroine who carried a purse as a standard feature of her fighting attire. I can’t come up with another.

I’ll say this for Kathy Kane — straight or gay, the woman knew how to accessorize.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Oscar roulette

February 2, 2010

I’m not sure yet how I feel about the expanded field of Best Picture nominees for this year’s Academy Awards.

On the one hand, I realize this is nothing new from a historical perspective. The top Oscar category was similarly sized for a dozen years in the early days of the awards, from 1931 to 1943. It wasn’t until the 17th series of honors, in 1944, that the Best Picture field was trimmed to its more familiar five. So, in a way, this year’s 10 nominated films represent a return to Oscar’s glorious past.

I also acknowledge that the larger number of nominated films permits the Academy to spotlight smaller, less-viewed pictures that merit wider appreciation, such as the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man and the Nick Hornby-scripted An Education. There’s something to be said for Oscar not making its usual schizophrenic divide between the big-budget spectacular and the more intimate arthouse picture. The rising nomination tsunami is sufficiently voluminous to lift twice as many boats.

And, thankfully, there’s no longer the ghettoization of genre films (i.e., the sci-fi allegory District 9) or animated features (i.e., Disney/Pixar’s marvelous Up, only the second animated film in 82 years to vie for Best Picture) to the technical categories. Now, these films can stand alongside the “big boys” when the year’s top motion picture achievements are saluted.

Still, however, I find myself looking at the list of nominated films in much the same vein as I review the field for the Kentucky Derby every May. In truth, there are only a handful of horses in the race with genuine winning potential. All the rest are merely there to fill out the Racing Form. No one seriously looks at the ten Oscar-nominated pictures and believes that more than three or four of them have even a prayer of hauling down the big prize. The rest are like coaches of color getting token Rooney Rule interviews for an NFL head coaching position, when the team has already decided to hire a white guy.

Some might opine that a token nomination is better than none. Maybe they’re right.

In the end, the nominees will have to puzzle that out for themselves.

Hero of the Day: Jon Miller, Hall of Famer

February 1, 2010

Today, SSTOL offers a laurel and hearty handshake to San Francisco Giants voice Jon Miller, who today was announced as the 2010 winner of the Ford C. Frick Award — meaning his induction this summer into the broadcasters’ wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“The Big Kahuna” — as his broadcasting partners lovingly refer to him — joined the Giants’ on-air team in 1997, replacing another beloved local legend, Hank Greenwald. Before coming to San Francisco, Miller was the voice of the Baltimore Orioles for 14 years, preceded by brief stints with the Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers, and Boston Red Sox. He’s also been the play-by-play announcer for ESPN’s weekly Sunday Night Baseball telecasts since 1990.

Big Jon’s trademark humor and literate style have endeared him to Giants fans, as well as the national audience. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a genuine Bay Area native — born in The City and raised in the East Bay. As an even more narrowly specific local angle, one of Miller’s first broadcasting jobs was doing the evening sports news at Santa Rosa’s KFTY-50 back in the early 1970s. (A youthful Kahuna appears at 1:19 in the linked YouTube video clip.)

Among Miller’s signatures is his pronunciation of the names of Latin ballplayers, for which he uses a pitch-perfect Spanish accent. He frequently tosses an “Adios, pelota!” into his home run call when, say, Pablo (Kung Fu Panda) Sandoval crushes one over the left field wall at AT&T Park.

The Kahuna is under contract to broadcast Giants games for at least the next three seasons. Here’s hoping the newly minted Hall of Famer enjoys another couple of decades calling baseball by the Bay.