Archive for March 2010

On television, everything dies

March 29, 2010

As evidence of the title of this post, I offer the following three exhibits.

Last Wednesday, Robert Culp died.

Robert Culp first became a TV star in the late 1950s as the lead in a Western series entitled Trackdown. Culp played a Texas Ranger whose job involved — as the more mentally nimble among you will already have surmised — tracking down criminals and bringing them to justice. Trackdown, which ran for two seasons, is probably less well remembered than the other Western series that spun off from it: Wanted: Dead or Alive, the show that launched Steve McQueen on his road to superstardom.

Forgettable though Trackdown was, Culp’s next series would be the stuff of TV legend. I Spy featured Culp as espionage agent Kelly Robinson, who masked his real occupation under the guise of a professional tennis player. Robinson’s fellow spy, Alexander “Scotty” Scott, played by Bill Cosby, masqueraded as Kelly’s personal trainer and coach. I Spy became the first network series to share top billing between Caucasian and African-American actors, and to portray a true partnership of peers between men of different races (even though the “I” of the show’s title was presumed to be Robinson — then again, We Spy wouldn’t have made as catchy a title).

Nearly two decades later, Culp returned to weekly TV on The Greatest American Hero, as the tough-as-nails FBI man who becomes the “handler” of a hapless superhero played by William Katt. More recently, Culp had a recurring role on the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, playing the father-in-law of Ray Romano’s put-upon sportswriter. In around all of the above acting roles, Culp also built a respectable career as a director and screenwriter.

Last Thursday, At the Movies — the long-running syndicated film review program — died. (Or was canceled, which is how shows die on TV.)

It’s fair to say that At the Movies had already died three deaths before Disney pulled the plug. It died first in 1999, when Gene Siskel, the Chicago Tribune critic who originally occupied the aisle seat opposite Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, passed away from cancer. Richard Roeper — who, quite frankly, I never much cared for — replaced Siskel the following year.

The show died a second time in 2006, when Ebert’s health difficulties (originating with surgery to remove a cancerous salivary gland) escalated to the point that he could no longer appear on camera. An endless stream of guest hosts — some fine, several wretched — filled in the empty chair next to Roeper over the next couple of years.

(I will presume that most of my readers — savvy bunch that you are — already know that Ebert subsequently lost both the ability to speak and the ability to intake food and drink orally due to further complications from this surgery. Uncle Roger would want you to know, however, that he is alive and alert and continuing to write prolifically — as lead critic for the Sun-Times, on his own website, and on Twitter, where he posts with prodigious frequency.)

At the Movies suffered its third death in 2008, when Ben Mankiewicz, the Vanna White of the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, and Ben Lyons, an entertainment reporter for the E! channel whose primary qualification as a film reviewer was genetic (his father, Jeffrey Lyons — along with film historian Neal Gabler — replaced Siskel and Ebert on Sneak Previews, the PBS show S&E left in 1981 to start what evolved into At the Movies), took over for the medically unavailable Ebert and the dismissed Roeper. With the two Bens occupying the storied seats, At the Movies crashed and burned like nothing had since the Hindenburg. Disney realized its error after one grotesque season, ditching the Bens in favor of the perfectly acceptable A.O. Scott (from the New York Times) and Michael Phillips (from the Chicago Tribune), but the fatal damage had been done.

At the Movies will limp on for the remainder of this final season with Scott and Phillips at the helm. By rights, the show should have been laid mercifully to rest with poor Gene Siskel.

Finally, last Friday, 24 died.

When it exploded onto American TV in 2001, 24 was unlike anything viewers had seen before: A fictional 24-hour day that unfolded in real time, over the span of 24 hour-long episodes. (Well, “real time” in TV terms. Part of the fun was noting the many events that transpired with impossible swiftness; i.e., cross-Los Angeles car trips accomplished in 10 minutes.)

The show centered around the perfect hero for the New Millennium: Jack Bauer (played to teeth-gritting perfection by Kiefer Sutherland), a rule-bending intelligence agent employed by a super-secret federal antiterrorist unit. Bauer confronted national security crises and enemies of the state and beat, shot, tortured, and shouted them to death in the space of a single revolution of the planet. In that groundbreaking first season, Bauer saved the life of Senator David Palmer, who by Season Two had become the nation’s first African-American President — foreshadowing (and in the mind of more than one social scientist, helping to facilitate) the real-life election of Barack Obama to the White House by the end of the decade.

Jack Bauer has had seven more “really bad days” since Season One, the last of which is playing out Monday nights on FOX at this writing. It was difficult for many viewers — yours truly among them — to see how the show’s novel premise would survive repetition, but for the most part, 24 has worked. If you buy into the premise, are sufficiently forgiving to overlook continuity errors the size of Martian craters, and most importantly, get into Jack Bauer and his ever-changing supporting cast (the show’s cast turns over almost completely from one season to the next, with Bauer and tech wizard Chloe O’Brian –played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, who signed on in Season Three — the only consistent mainstays), then 24‘s seat-of-the-pants thrill-ride can prove addictive.

Now, as Jack has bellowed repeatedly (and to much-lampooned effect) over the years… “We’re running out of time!”

And so, indeed, it must be. Because on TV, everything dies eventually.

Except maybe The Simpsons.

Comic Art Friday: Not for little boys

March 26, 2010

The Spirit, October 6, 1946, page 1, panel 1, art and script by Will Eisner

It’s one of the two most indelibly memorable introductory lines ever written for a woman in comics:

I am P’Gell… and this is NOT a story for little boys!

Over the past three Comic Art Fridays,we’ve met a collection of ladies I like to call The Spirit’s Bombshells! — the pivotal female characters from Will Eisner‘s legendary comic series of the 1940s and early 1950s, The Spirit. We’ve seen these women immortalized in pinups modeled after World War II-era bomber nose art, through the nonpareil talents of contemporary artist Darryl (Green Lantern) Banks.

Today’s spotlight falls on the fourth and final member of this unforgettable quartet, and she’s the baddest of the bunch.

P'Gell, pencils and inks by comics artist Darryl Banks

Debuting in the October 6, 1946 Spirit Sunday supplement, P’Gell represented Eisner’s take on the classic femme fatale. (We presume her to be French, as her name is a variation of Pigalle, the Parisian district notorious for its steamy nightlife.) In all of the Spirit stories in which she appears, P’Gell shows herself to be the proverbial black widow, marrying an endless string of wealthy, often powerful, usually older men, who share the knack for dying under peculiar — one might even say suspicious — circumstances. She repeatedly tries to get The Spirit in her clutches, but our stalwart hero’s heart proves to be as true-blue as his business suit.

P’Gell’s seductive persona was likely a compilation of influences. Her forebears included the Dragon Lady, the antiheroine of Milton Caniff’s popular newspaper strip Terry and the Pirates; cinematic vixens such as Mae West, Pola Negri, Greta Garbo, and Theda Bara; and the real-life courtesan turned spy, Mata Hari. P’Gell herself became an inspiration for dozens of characters — in comics and in other entertainment media — over the decades to come.

But her initial panel — languid, tantalizing, oozing with mystery, foreboding, and more than a soup├žon of desire — still stands as a debut image rarely matched in the annals of comics. It wouldn’t be until 20 years later, when Mary Jane Watson burst onto the scene in Amazing Spider-Man #42 (November 1966) with a cheery “Face it, tiger… you just hit the jackpot,” that a female character would announce herself with such an iconic opening salvo.

Hey, I didn’t call P’Gell a bombshell for nothing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s review of The Spirit’s Bombshells! My thanks to Darryl Banks for contributing four sensational artworks to my theme gallery. And of course, a heartfelt salute to the legend himself, Will Eisner, for creating these four wonderful women.

Next weekend, WonderCon — the Bay Area’s annual extravaganza of comics and fantasy media of every imaginable stripe — explodes into San Francisco’s Moscone Center. I’ll preview the action with a look back at a couple of my favorite commission acquisitions from WonderCons past. See you here in seven.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Supergirl is now officially Superwoman

March 25, 2010

Twenty-one years ago today, my daughter KM was born.

And, as they say in the comics, nothing would ever be the same again.

Clearly, from my perspective, KM’s birth is far and away the most significant event ever to occur on March 25 throughout the entirety of human history. (Which, if you think about it, is all the history there is. It’s not as though any of the other creatures who inhabit this planet are writing this stuff down.) If, however, one wanted to think about the importance of this date from a more global perspective, here’s some grist for the mill.

  • According to tradition, Venice (the one in Italy, not the one in southern California) was founded on this date in 421.
  • Robert the Bruce assumed the royal throne of Scotland in 1306.
  • Titan, the largest moon of Saturn (and the birthplace of Saturn Girl, of Legion of Super-Heroes fame), was discovered by Christiaan Huygens in 1655.
  • Slave trading was abolished in the British Empire in 1807. (About time!)
  • Greece — a lovely country where I spent two years during my halcyon youth — declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, and found itself compelled to make its own footstools from that point forward.
  • Beginning one of the most notorious travesties of the American justice system, the Scottsboro Boys were arrested in 1931.
  • The European Economic Community (what we Americans used to call the Common Market) was founded in 1957.
  • John Lennon and Yoko Ono began their first Bed-In for Peace at the Amsterdam Hilton in 1969.
  • In 2006, Kyle Huff shot and killed six people at a party in Seattle before turning his weapon on himself, in what came to be known as the Capitol Hill massacre.

KM shares her birthday with such notables as…

  • The late sportscaster Howard Cosell.
  • The equally late Patrick Troughton (the Second Doctor in Doctor Who).
  • Astronaut Jim Lovell (who narrowly avoided becoming “the late Jim Lovell” aboard Apollo 13).
  • Film critic Gene Shalit.
  • Feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
  • The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
  • The Queen of Rock and Roll, Elton John. (Sorry, Sir Elton, but you know you’d have made that same joke.)
  • Actresses and style-setters Sarah Jessica Parker and Marcia Cross.
  • American Idol contestants Katharine McPhee, Carmen Rasmusen, and Jason Castro.
  • Auto racer and GoDaddy pitchwoman Danica Patrick.
  • Three former members of KM’s beloved Golden State Warriors: Avery Johnson, Bob Sura, and Marco Belinelli.
  • The charming proprietor of my local comic book shop, Kathy Bottarini.

Happy birthday, Punkin. Your mom and I love you very much.

You go, Supergirl! I mean… Superwoman.

Yeah, that’ll take some getting used to.

The Swan Tunes In: Justified

March 24, 2010

I’m a notoriously tough hombre to convince of anything, but after a mere two episodes, I’m ready to say this straight out…

Justified is the best show on television right now.

The words “right now” are key to the above sentence, because TV’s best drama (and, not coincidentally, another FX series), Sons of Anarchy, is presently on hiatus. When Sons returns, it will give Justified a worthy challenge. Although, the nature of things being what it is, I’m guessing that FX will work it so that Justified will have completed its first season by the time Sons resurfaces for its fourth. No point in cluttering up the schedule with too much great TV.

In one key measure, Justified already surpasses Sons of Anarchy — its focus on one exceptionally conceived character. Sons, an ensemble drama with a ginormous cast, has a boatload of players and personalities to deal with each week, and its ostensible lead character, motorcycle gang leader Jackson “Jax” Teller, is rarely the most interesting element in the show. Justified has done a terrific job of populating its supporting cast, but they’re exactly that — supporting cast. Everything hinges on the man at the center of the action (and of almost every scene): Raylan Givens, Deputy United States Marshal, played to understated perfection by Timothy Olyphant.

The character of Raylan — adapted for TV from a trio of short stories by legendary thriller scribe Elmore Leonard — is a pastiche of several disparate elements. He’s one part Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (the cop whose philosophy is “Shooting’s all right, as long as the right people get shot”), one part Dennis Weaver’s McCloud (the Stetson-wearing, smarter-than-he-looks walking anachronism), and one part Tommy Lee Jones’s relentless Sam Gerard (from the films The Fugitive and U.S. Marshals). There’s also a lot in Raylan that’s pure Elmore Leonard, especially his penchant for pithy dialogue. Leonard can be a difficult author to translate to the screen, and to television in particular, but the creative team behind Justified hits all of the right notes, at least so far.

Here’s the set-up. While posted to the Marshal Service’s Miami field office (where his cowboy hat and boots make him as inconspicuous as a McDonald’s on the moon), Raylan’s latest gunning down of a suspect earns him a swift reassignment to a faraway jurisdiction — Harlan County, Kentucky, where Raylan was born and raised. (I wondered at first why the Marshals Service would maintain a presence in this hillbilly backwater. The reason became clear in the second episode: there’s a federal prison there — the U.S. Penitentiary at Big Sandy.) Raylan is less than enthused about his new station — he’d sworn when he left Harlan that he’d never return — but he accepts his medicine with wry resignation.

Moving to Harlan reunites Raylan with an old acquaintance, no-nonsense Chief Deputy Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), and provides him a pair of junior associates, former Army Ranger Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) and tightly wound Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel). The move also places Raylan in uncomfortably close proximity to his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and his high school girlfriend Ava (Joelle Carter), who’s since married the brother of Raylan’s childhood pal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), now a small-time thug running a white supremacist gang. Raylan’s first case in his new/old digs brings him into conflict with Boyd, who thinks he may have an edge on his former friend, but is proven wrong. (“If you make me pull, I’ll put you down,” Raylan warns Boyd, who eventually makes him pull and gets put down, albeit not fatally.)

Justified works for two reasons. First, the writing (initially by Graham Yost, who developed the series with input from Elmore Leonard) is stellar. Second, Timothy Olyphant owns the lead role, taking a character that could veer off into shallow caricature and making him multilayered, conflicted, and believably human. Olyphant’s Raylan is no superman — he’s tough, cool, and beyond competent at what he does, but he gets outmaneuvered by the bad guys at times (even though he wins in the end) and is guilty of occasional grotesque lapses in judgment (while transporting a prisoner, Raylan lets the felon drive while he surfs the ‘Net on his iPhone, resulting in predictable misfortune). Most importantly for television, Olyphant makes Raylan compelling and likable, guaranteeing that viewers will keep tuning in to see what he does next.

(And — speaking strictly from a disinterested heterosexual male perspective, mind you — I suspect that many female audience members will find Mr. Olyphant easy on the eyes.)

Clearly, two episodes do not a Hall of Fame series make. It remains to be seen whether Olyphant, Yost and company can maintain — and continue to elevate — the high level of quality they’ve established to this point. The show is going to need to flesh out its remaining characters, who at this point are little better than names, faces, and attitudes. It also needs to find ways to keep Raylan’s off-the-job life interesting once the “hometown boy returns” storyline plays out.

But I’ll say this: I can’t recall the last time I enjoyed two hours of scripted television as much as I enjoyed the first two episodes of Justified. The creators of this show have bought themselves a ton of good will with their opening salvo. Now we’ll see whether they’ll build on it, or burn it.

Justified airs on FX Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. Your Uncle Swan gives it nine tailfeathers out of a possible ten, just in case he needs a feather to fan himself with when the action gets heated. If you like tough, hard-boiled drama, you should check it out.

(Caveat: As FX’s series often do, Justified pushes the envelope of adult content — language, violence, etc. — as far as basic cable and the FCC will permit. You’ve been warned.)

Dancing in the dark, walking through the park, and reminiscing

March 23, 2010

This headline struck me with a lightning bolt of nostalgia:

Fruitport Township Board OKs casino agreements with Little River Band

You know, I loved me some Little River Band back in the day. A series of charmingly pleasant pop hits made the Melbourne, Australia-based LRB ubiquitous on American Top 40 and Adult Contemporary radio in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Their 1977 album Diamantina Cocktail broke LRB big-time in the U.S. — that recording went gold, and the pair that followed it, Sleeper Catcher and First Under the Wire, both scored platinum sales. LRB earned another gold album with 1981’s Time Exposure, and smashed the multi-platinum barrier with a 1982 Greatest Hits compilation. The band charted three more albums in the States as they began the long, slow slide into bargain bin obscurity.

Never the most distinctive or innovative act in the business, the Little River Band nevertheless cranked out the kind of innocuous, infernally catchy tunes that bore their way into your cranium and dare you to stop humming them. I’ll be honest, I dug quite a few of those melodious confections. I still have some LRB LPs collecting dust on my living room bookshelf with the rest of my old vinyl.

Here for your singalong enjoyment, we count down Uncle Swan’s 10 Favorite Little River Band Songs

10. “Reminiscing.” The group’s first Top 10 U.S. hit. Any pop song that name-checks Glenn Miller deserves a thumbs-up.

9. “The Other Guy.” Everyone loves a good relationship-gone-wrong song.

8. “Happy Anniversary.” Despite the seemingly upbeat title, this is another now-you’ve-gone-and-left-me number. They had issues, those LRB guys.

7. “Full Circle.” A non-single from Time Exposure, this one spotlights the LRB’s flawless harmonies completely a cappella through the first verse, gradually bringing in the rhythm and string sections as the song builds. Awesome stuff.

6. “Lonesome Loser.” Another song with an a cappella opening, this “unlucky in love” tune was one of the group’s biggest hits. Back in my DJ days, I occasionally opened my radio show with this.

5. “Help Is On Its Way.” This is the Little River Band song you probably forgot was a Little River Band song. It’s turned up in commercials a number of times over the years, for everything from UPS to Nutri-Grain granola bars.

4. “Man On Your Mind.” Not to be confused with “Man in the Mirror,” which is a Michael Jackson song.

3. “Cool Change.” Probably the most profound number LRB ever recorded, it’s a paean to being the captain of one’s own ship and the master of one’s own soul. Plus, it’s got an albatross and a whale in it.

2. “Lady.” If you were in high school in the late ’70s, this song still says, “Prom night.”

1. “The Night Owls.” Because I am one.

I’m not sure exactly how the Little River Band got into the casino business, but I’m happy to know that the boys from Down Under are still making a living.

Huh? What?

Oh… the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.

Not the Little River Band.


Never mind, then.

Comic Art Friday: Sand storm

March 19, 2010

In our most recent Comic Art Friday editions, we’ve looked at two of the four pinups that artist Darryl (Green Lantern) Banks created for my Bombshells! commission series, spotlighting the memorable women of Will Eisner’s The Spirit.

Two weeks ago, we talked about the genesis of my Spirit’s Bombshells! project, and featured Darryl’s lovely rendition of The Spirit’s true love, Ellen Dolan. Last Friday, we considered Eisner’s importance within the comics medium, and admired Darryl’s portrait of The Spirit’s frequent rival, Silk Satin.

Today, while you’re checking out this sultry drawing of Sand Saref — about whom, more later — I’d like to talk a bit about how I first came to discover Will Eisner’s work in general, and The Spirit specifically.

Sand Saref, pencils and inks by comics artist Darryl Banks

I hope that most of you know that I wasn’t around during the period (1940-1952) when The Spirit‘s Sunday newspaper supplement was appearing weekly in newspapers. (Hey, I’m getting up there, but I’m not that old… yet.) My first experience with The Spirit came in 1974, when Warren Publishing began releasing reprints of the classic strips in a monthly magazine format.

At the time, my family was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Warren magazines were a staple of the book rack at our base exchange. I was already an avid consumer of Warren’s movie fan publication Famous Monsters of Filmland, and of their line of EC Comics-inspired horror books — Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella (issues of which I had to smuggle into the house, lest my mother find them and toss them into the trash). When The Spirit first appeared on the rack alongside the other Warren series, I assumed that it, too, contained newly published material. To my surprise, there was an entire lost world of comic book goodness that had been around for more than 30 years, and I’d known nothing about it.

The Spirit quickly became one of my new favorite magazines. I fell in love with Eisner’s art, his narrative style, his quirky characters — even, to an ambivalent degree, The Spirit’s stereotypically portrayed African-American sidekick, Ebony White, the one jarringly anachronistic and unsettling element of the older Spirit tales — and especially, his wonderfully compelling stories. Reading The Spirit was not unlike reading the absolute best of the 1960s Marvel Comics I’d grown up with, albeit with an edgier, less juvenile tone and more consistent creativity.

Those Spirit reprints sent me scrambling to the library to devour such tomes as Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson’s All in Color for a Dime, and Jim Steranko’s two-volume Steranko History of Comics. It’s safe to say that reading The Spirit — and craving a deeper understanding of the era in which the series originated — drew me into the study of comic book history, an obsession that persists with me to this day.

Speaking of obsessions…

Sand Saref and Denny Colt — the boy who would grow up to become The Spirit — were childhood sweethearts. Sand’s father was a stalwart policeman, while Denny’s dad was a broken-down ex-prizefighter who hung out with underworld characters. After Officer Saref was killed by Mr. Colt’s associates during a robbery gone south, Sand became embittered and turned to crime herself, evolving into the classic “good girl gone bad.”

Sand guest-stars in a number of The Spirit’s adventures over the years, forever in the midst of malfeasance, with The Spirit compelled to end her nefarious plots. It’s clear that she still carries a torch for her old boyfriend, and to some extent, he for her. (Sand, unique among the women in The Spirit’s life, knows that The Spirit and the supposedly deceased Denny Colt are the same person.)

The Spirit’s heart now belongs to Ellen Dolan, though. (True to stereotype, you knew that Ellen was the good girl and Sand the bad because Ellen was blonde, and Sand brunette.) After all, Sand is a cold-hearted villainess. How could the straight-arrow Spirit get mixed up with a vixen like her?

How, indeed.

Next Friday, we’ll conclude this miniseries with our fourth and final Spirit’s Bombshell! Trust me… this will not be a story for little boys.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

It’s my bracket, and I’ll cry if I want to

March 18, 2010

At this writing, the 2010 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is only three games old, and my bracket is already busted.

Stupid BYU.

Picking the 10th-seeded Florida Gators over the 7th-seeded Brigham Young seemed like the right decision, given BYU’s 17-year drought. The Cougars last won a first-round game in 1993, with seven consecutive early exits since then. They chose this tournament to get off the schneid. Florida stretched the game to two overtimes, so it’s not as though they weren’t a viable pick.

On the positive side, my usually sound eye for March Madness upsets led me to choose 11-seed Old Dominion over #6 Notre Dame, and ODU came through big time. The Fighting Irish are always an iffy pick at the NCAAs, and this year proved no exception.

I was seriously tempted to take #15 Robert Morris over #2 Villanova. I didn’t pull the trigger on that one, but the fact that Morris took ‘Nova to overtime affirms that my spider sense about that game was justified.

Looking ahead, my Final Four forecast is — for the first time in recent memory — comprised of the top seeds from each of the regionals: Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse, and Duke. I’m climbing way out on a fragile limb to predict that Syracuse will best the Kentucky Wildcats in the championship game to win top honors for the second time this decade. It kills me to go all-in on a Jim Boeheim-coached team, but I’ve got a feeling about this one.

We’ll see whether that feeling is clairvoyance, or indigestion.

[DAY ONE UPDATE: Thursday, March 18]

The tournament’s first 16 games are in the books. I went 12-4 on the day. My picks are in boldface below.

Predicted correctly:

  • East Regional: #1 Kentucky over #16 East Tennessee State; #3 New Mexico over #14 Montana; #11 Washington over #6 Marquette.
  • Midwest Regional: #1 Kansas over #16 Lehigh; #6 Tennessee over #11 San Diego State.
  • South Regional: #2 Villanova over #15 Robert Morris; #3 Baylor over #14 Sam Houston State; #10 St. Mary’s over #7 Richmond; #11 Old Dominion over #6 Notre Dame.
  • West Regional: #2 Kansas State over #15 North Texas; #5 Butler over #12 UTEP; #13 Murray State over #4 Vanderbilt.

Predicted incorrectly:

  • East Regional: #9 Wake Forest over #8 Texas.
  • Midwest Regional: #14 Ohio over #3 Georgetown; #9 Northern Iowa over #8 UNLV.
  • South Regional: No misses. (Yay, me!)
  • West Regional: #7 BYU over #10 Florida.

[DAY TWO UPDATE: Friday, March 18]

My bracketology skills rocked today. I correctly predicted 15 of the 16 games on Day Two of the tourney. Bow before me!

Predicted correctly:

  • East Regional: #2 West Virginia over #15 Morgan State; #4 Wisconsin over #13 Wofford; #10 Missouri over #7 Clemson.
  • Midwest Regional: #2 Ohio State over #15 UC Santa Barbara; #4 Maryland over #13 Houston; #5 Michigan State over #12 New Mexico State; #10 Georgia Tech over #7 Oklahoma State.
  • South Regional: #1 Duke over #16 Arkansas-Pine Bluff; #4 Purdue over #13 Siena; #5 Texas A&M over #12 Utah State; #8 California over #9 Louisville.
  • West Regional: #1 Syracuse over #16 Vermont; #3 Pittsburgh over #14 Oakland; #6 Xavier over #11 Minnesota; #8 Gonzaga over #9 Florida State.

Predicted incorrectly:

  • East Regional: #12 Cornell over #5 Temple.
  • Midwest Regional: No misses
  • South Regional: No misses.
  • West Regional: No misses.

Put it all together, and my record in Round One is 27-5. Not perfect, by any means, but pretty darned good.

I’m especially pleased to note that the Bay Area showed up in the first round, with both local teams that made the tourney — Cal and St. Mary’s — winning their initial games. St. Mary’s and Gonzaga also represented my alma mater conference, the West Coast Conference, brilliantly with their two wins.

Great tournament thus far. Bring on Round Two!

Idol 2010: Your Top 12 finalists, America

March 16, 2010

When last we left those crazy kids on American Idol, there were twice as many of them. Now that we’re down to the Top 12, let’s see how the competition has shaped up.

First off, my prognosticating skills positively reek this season. In forecasting the six female singers who’d make it this far, I batted a meager .500 — which would be a stupendous batting average, actually, if this were Major League Baseball, which it isn’t. I guessed correctly that we’d still have Crystal Bowersox, Siobhan Magnus, and Katie Stevens with us. I’m somewhat, yet not entirely, surprised that Paige Miles has survived. I am flabbergasted to still be looking at Didi Benami, and especially Lacey Brown, whom I thought should have been one of the first eliminations.

I did slightly better with the male contestants, accurately choosing four of the final six: Casey James, Lee Dewyze, Andrew Garcia, and Michael “Big Mike” Lynche. That the cute but out-of-his-depth Aaron Kelly has pulled enough votes out of America’s grandmas and tweens to get to this level doesn’t shock me. That Tim Urban — who has the least talent of any contestant of either gender, possibly in the history of the series — hasn’t yet been shown the door is less a surprise than it is a crime against civilization.

Of the people who have gotten the boot, the greatest disappointment for me was Lilly Scott, whose hippie-chic coffeehouse style made her, at the very least, interesting. That latter word I’d also have applied to Todrick Hall, who wasn’t the best singer in the bunch, but had a certain flamboyance (in the literal, not the encoded, sense of the term) that made him stand out. But… life moves on.

That said, here’s how I’m ranking the chances of the dozen left standing.

12. Tim Urban. Hokey smoke, Bullwinkle — how did this guy get this far? Perhaps the most ironic point about young Mr. Urban is his name, given that he’s about as urban as I am hillbilly, which is to say, not much at all. Unfortunately for viewers, Tim consistently attempts to prove this irony — for example, by attempting a reggae version of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” If you’re going to pull off a Rasta-inflected treatment of a bluesy rocker, I think you might have actually wanted to have met a Jamaican.

11. Lacey Brown. Not only can the girl not sing a lick, but everything about her screams “fraud,” from her stagy mannerisms to her clunky, melodramatic phrasing. Should have been sent back to Denny’s with a name badge and a book of order tickets weeks ago.

10. Didi Benami. My opinion of Didi hasn’t changed one iota since we discussed her with the Top 24. I find her affected cheerleader personality grating, and her singing, while not dreadful, is merely ordinary. I suspect that she’ll place higher than tenth, but these are my numbers, and that’s the one I’m giving her.

9. Paige Miles. Paige has a ton of voice, and one of these years, she might be capable of using it effectively. Right now, she’s just a cheerful kid playing with a big, dangerous toy.

8. Aaron Kelly. Randy Jackson was off his nut when he compared Aaron to Justin Timberlake — except for the fact that, as I observed a while back, Aaron would fit perfectly in a remake of The Mickey Mouse Club, where Justin (along with Britney, Christina, J.C., Ryan, and a gaggle of their peers) got started. In terms of talent, Aaron’s more like the Jonas Brother who got cut from the varsity squad. Nice try, son.

7. Katie Stevens. It’s almost a shame that Idol‘s producers put Katie through to the main cast this year. If she came back in a couple of years with some seasoning, a little maturity, and a smattering of life experience, she might be a real contender. At 17, she looks like an overgrown veteran of Toddlers and Tiaras. Or Katharine McPhee’s baby sister.

6. Casey James. Bucky Covington, The Sequel. Coasting on flowing locks and scruffy charm. He’s all hat and no cattle. Kara lusts for him, though, and the ladies will enjoy gawking at him for yet a while longer.

5. Andrew Garcia. I’m probably the only person in America outside of the immediate Garcia family who rates Andrew this high. The fact is, despite his struggles in recent weeks, I like the unique quality of his voice. Someone once said that his greatest treasures were words he left unspoken. I’m guessing that Andrew wishes he’d left unsung that acoustic cover of “Straight Up” from Hollywood Week, because he’s been trying — and mostly failing — to live up to it ever since. If the guy who busted out that transcendent performance ever resurfaces, Andrew could soar to this height. If not, he’ll be eliminated. Soon.

4. Lee Dewyze. I sense that the folks at 19 Entertainment would like to see Lee erupt into the next Chris Daughtry. Frankly, I don’t think he’s got Daughtry’s ability, or — just as significantly — Daughtry’s self-assurance. Lee has solid potential, but his nerves and inner demons stand in his way. Being able to do it is one thing. Being able to bring it with moxie and fire on a ginormous stage with a live audience and millions of people staring through their television screens is another kettle of fish entirely. I don’t think Lee’s kept his bait warm.

3. Big Mike Lynche. Kara DioGuardi said on Jay Leno’s show last night that she thinks Big Mike will win this season. He’s certainly fun to watch — although, to be frank, I don’t think his voice is all that special — and he’s a great story, what with the loving wife and the adorable newborn at home. It’s possible that the two ladies ahead of him may end up splitting a lot of the same voting demographic, and Mike could slip past them. I’m just not convinced yet that America wants another Ruben Studdard.

2. Siobhan Magnus. Let’s put it right out there: This chick is seven kinds of weird. But underlying the bizarre fashion sense, the nose ring, the odd facial expressions, and the ditzy-kooky Cyndi Lauperesque personality, she has two things that I admire: a terrific singing voice, and her own genuine style. I never know exactly what Siobhan is going to do from one week to the next, but I’m always positive that it will be worth watching, and hearing. I don’t know what a Siobhan Magnus record album would sound like, but I know it would be entertaining.

1. Crystal Bowersox. I believed the first time I heard her sing that Crystal would win Idol this year. Nothing I’ve heard since has altered that early opinion. Crystal knows exactly what her musical niche is, and she’s eminently comfortable inhabiting it. She may be the most complete performer, right out of the gate, that Idol has ever embraced. Which may be the one challenge that could derail Crystal — the audience’s sense that she’s not growing or changing much from one week to the next. Now, that worked once — Taylor Hicks brought a singular kind of talent to the Idol party in Season Five, and rode pretty much the same pony he came in on all the way to the title. Taylor’s lack of popular success in the years since, however, shows how quickly the public tires of a one-trick pony, even if the trick is a good one. Crystal would be well advised to whip out a new trick now and then, just so the audience doesn’t get bored.

That’s how I’m seeing it thus far. But as noted, I’ve been wrong before. Recently.

A couple of additional observations…

New judge Ellen DeGeneres has added an entertaining element to the show. Ellen’s natural likability overcomes the (often glaringly evident) fact that she doesn’t know music from a performing or technical perspective. Then again, neither do most of the people casting votes, so Ellen often speaks for them. If it were up to me, I’d rather have experts offering the commentary, but this is TV, after all.

Idol has been remarkably free of controversy this season. While it’s true that there are a number of suspect performers left in the Top 12, it’s equally true that none of the people dismissed in the first half of the competition represented a tragic injustice. What that means for viewers is a lack of suspense. Unless some contestant unleashes a supernova of musical brilliance heretofore unhinted, Idol 2010 should come down to a playoff between Crystal and Siobhan, with either Lee or Big Mike a distant third.

We’ll update once again when the field has been pared to the final few.

SwanShadow… out.

Comic Art Friday: (Silk) Satin doll

March 12, 2010

Last week on Comic Art Friday, we debuted the first of artist Darryl Banks’s four Bombshells! pinups featuring the women of The Spirit, Will Eisner’s groundbreaking comic series from the 1940s and ’50s.

Here’s the second of The Spirit’s Bombshells, Sylvia “Silk” Satin.

Silk Satin, pencils and inks by comics artist Darryl Banks

Before we get to Satin’s story, though, let’s talk a little about why Eisner is such an important figure in the history of comic art. So important, in fact, that the comics industry’s annual awards — as well as its Hall of Fame — are named for him.

Eisner brought a new aesthetic to comic art: the cinematic. He was one of the earliest artists — if not indeed the very first — to see the comic panel in the same way that a film director or cinematographer looks through the movie camera’s viewfinder. In The Spirit, Eisner created a visual language for comics that launched the medium into a brave new world of crazy angles, dramatic interplay of light and shadow, and powerful closeups. The Spirit’s universe bore a striking resemblance to frames clipped from a ’40s noir detective film.

Post-Spirit, Eisner pioneered another format that has become ubiquitous today — the graphic novel. His landmark 1978 work, A Contract with God, is widely recognized as the first published comic to be identified with that descriptive phrase (although it was not the first long-form comic).

Not content simply to create these innovations, late in his career Eisner took another giant step — he told the world how he did it. His books Comics and Sequential Art (1985) and Graphic Storytelling (1996), explained how comics work as both an art form and a narrative vehicle. These two texts are essential reads for those who want to create their own comics, and those who desire a more informed appreciation of the medium.

As for Silk Satin, she enters The Spirit’s storyline in the March 1941 tale, “Introducing Silk Satin.” She presents an imposing figure — a tall, statuesque woman who generally wears her black hair cropped short, and dresses in man-tailored suits as often as she wears evening gowns. A jewel thief when she first appears, Satin (the character is generally addressed by her surname) later changes her criminal ways. Over the next decade, she would spend time as a British secret agent, a United Nations operative, and eventually an insurance investigator. Sometimes she and The Spirit were friendly collaborators; on other occasions, they worked against one another.

The Silk Satin stories generated some of the most personal moments in The Spirit’s career. In a pair of 1946 stories (“Hildie and the Kid Gang” and “Hildie and Satin”), The Spirit would help reunite Satin with her lost-lost daughter, Hildie. There were frequent hints of possible romance between The Spirit and Satin, making her the “bad girl” counterpart to “good girl” Ellen Dolan.

Next week, we’ll look at the third of these Eisner-inspired Bombshells! drawings. I’ll talk then about how I came to discover Will Eisner’s work, and how The Spirit helped me mature as a connoisseur of comics. Drop back in seven for that conversation.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

The Two Coreys: Now with 50% less Corey

March 10, 2010

The subhead on the San Francisco Chronicle‘s SF Gate home page got it wrong about Corey Haim.

According to the Chron, “The 1980s teen star of Lost Boys and Lucas struggled with drugs as an adult.”

That’s exactly backward. Corey Haim didn’t struggle with drugs. He struggled to be without drugs. Apparently, he lost.

The Associated Press obituary offers a telling quote Haim gave to the British tabloid The Sun in a 2004 interview:

I was working on Lost Boys when I smoked my first joint. I did cocaine for about a year and a half, then it led to crack.

Dude… cocaine and crack are the same thing. That’s like saying, “I used to drink water, then I switched to melted ice.” No wonder you couldn’t quit.

One wishes that it were possible to say that Haim’s passing comes as a shock. Sadly, the real shock is that he survived this long. Or perhaps that the other Corey, Feldman, didn’t do himself in first. (At last check, Corey Feldman still lives. But keep watching this space, just in case.)

In the climactic scene in Haim’s best-known film, The Lost Boys, lead vampire Max (played by Edward Herrmann) tells Haim’s character, “Don’t ever invite a vampire into your house, you silly boy. It renders you powerless.”

Corey Haim invited the vampire into his house, and in the end, it rendered him powerless.