Archive for November 2010

And don’t call me Shirley

November 29, 2010

When I heard last evening that Leslie Nielsen had died at the age of 84, I immediately thought — as I presume most people did — of the comedic roles he played during the last three decades of his acting career, beginning with Airplane! and continuing most notably with the TV series Police Squad! and the Naked Gun movies it spawned.

Often lost in that thought, however, is that Nielsen’s first comedy successes resulted from his not previously having been viewed as a comic actor. It’s a marvelous study in contrast — which is, after all, the very essence of comedy.

What made Airplane! funny was the absurdity of seeing actors whose screen images were stereotypically strait-laced — Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, George Kennedy — doing and saying outlandish things. Think about the classic scene where Graves’s airline pilot makes homosexually suggestive remarks to a young boy: “Have you ever been in the cockpit of an airplane before? Have you ever seen a grown man naked? Have you ever been in a Turkish prison? Do you like movies about gladiators?” It’s shockingly funny, because at that point we mostly knew Peter Graves as the humorless secret agent Jim Phelps from Mission: Impossible. Did Graves ever utter a funny line in the entire run of that series? Did he ever even crack a smile? I don’t think so. Thus, when he makes these outrageous comments in Airplane!, it’s hilarious because, well, we didn’t know Peter Graves had that in him.

Now imagine, say, Will Ferrell in that same Peter Graves role. (Yes, I know Will Ferrell was in junior high school when Airplane! was made. Just go with me here.) It wouldn’t be as funny, because we expect outrageous comments from the mouth of Will Ferrell. The jokes would be the same, and Ferrell’s take on them might be more inherently humorous, but the impact of contrast would be lacking.

When Airplane! appeared, most people knew Leslie Nielsen — if indeed they knew him at all — as the sober-sided space captain in Forbidden Planet, or the equally somber ocean liner captain in The Poseidon Adventure, or the daring but dull Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion in the Disney miniseries The Swamp Fox. He was not an actor one expected to hear tossing off deadpan one-liners like the one in the headline of this post. Nielsen’s stiff-upper-lipped persona (as well as a previously untapped gift of timing) made him the perfect contrast for humor — a contrast he milked to great financial reward for the next 30 years.

Unfortunately — at least in my view — Nielsen didn’t know when to quit. In the aftermath of his first Naked Gun bonanza, he cranked out more than a dozen execrable films showcasing his newfound penchant for deadpan comedy, each of which proved more rancid than its predecessor. It’s one thing to find a fresh horse to ride; it’s entirely another to keep beating that horse long after it’s expired. Had Nielsen contented himself with the two movies that made his reputation, plus the TV series that inspired the second of those two movies, he’d be remembered as an unqualified comic genius. As it is, our fond memories of those noteworthy roles are muted by the likes of Repossessed, 2001: A Space Travesty, and Scary Movies 3 and 4.

If you like science fiction, and have never seen Forbidden Planet, you owe it to yourself to check it out on cable (it turns up periodically on the classic movie channels) or DVD. It’s one of the very few films from the bug-eyed monster era of sci-fi flicks that still holds up well today. (It’s more or less a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in space opera dress.) Nielsen is effective in stolid action hero mode, Walter Pidgeon gnaws scenery as a brilliant but mad scientist, and Anne Francis — later the star of TV’s first female-lead detective series, Honey West — fills out a miniskirted space dress with aplomb.

Thanks for the good times, Mr. Nielsen. And remember… when you’re offered a choice between steak and fish for dinner, always choose the lasagna.

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Comic Art Friday: Black (Panther) Friday

November 26, 2010

For those of you out there battling the mob scene at your local mall or big box store, I have no sympathy. Your choice, your scars and high blood pressure. I’m relaxing comfortably in my new office chair with a mug of freshly brewed coffee and a slice of leftover Thanksgiving apple pie, thank you very much. Shopping is the reason God invented Amazon.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the Black Friday thing, I’m brim-full of excitement about something else Black — specifically, the Black Panther, my favorite superhero of all time. (Okay, maybe he’s #1 with Spider-Man at #1A. But still.) I’m especially excited about this astounding tableau, created by one of the true modern masters of the comic art form — Steve “The Dude” Rude.

The Black Panther, pencils and inks by comics artist Steve Rude

There are artists whom I commission because I know almost exactly what they will do with the assignment, and I’m commissioning them in part for their consistency of vision. There are other artists whom I commission knowing that I have no advance clue at all what they will do with the assignment, and if I try to guess, I will be incorrect. Steve Rude falls squarely into that latter category.

Because Rude’s bold style is unabashedly influenced by the late, legendary Jack “King” Kirby, who co-created the Black Panther (pretty much every comic book artist of the past 50 years has been influenced to some degree by Kirby, but Rude more directly than most), I might have supposed that, when asked to draw the Black Panther, Rude would give me a propulsive, energetically Kirbyesque take on the character — say, something along the lines of Kirby’s iconic cover to Black Panther #7.

Instead, Steve went in the opposite direction, drawing on another of his primary influences: Alex Toth, whose mastery of shape and minimalistic linework made him a much-in-demand designer for TV animation, a medium in which clarity and simplicity are essentials. (Among the classic cartoons Toth designed are Space Ghost, The Herculoids, and Super Friends.) Rude used a Toth-like contrast of deep shadow and blinding light to create a dense, moody, atmospheric scene. I was absolutely floored when I first saw it.

Actually, the second time I saw it.

The Black Panther, rough pencil sketch by comics artist Steve Rude

My first view of the piece came by way of Steve’s preliminary sketch, at which you’re now looking. You can see how, even though all of the key shapes, lines, and spaces are present in the rough, the dramatic impact Rude will ultimately introduce through skillfully placed shadow (it’s called “spotting blacks” in comic art jargon) is not only absent, but nearly impossible to anticipate. The prelim sketch suggests a very nice drawing to come. The finished, fully inked version goes light-years beyond “very nice,” into the realm of “jaw-droppingly stupendous.”

Now that’s a Black Friday I can get behind.

And that, friend reader, is your Comic Art Friday. (Remember: Avoid mob scenes; shop online. Just a tip from your Uncle Swan.)

SwanShadow Gives Thanks — Episode 7: A New Hope

November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 marks the seventh consecutive year that I’ve written my annual A-to-Z list of people and things for which I’m giving thanks on this contemplative holiday.

As those of you who drop by here regularly know, 2010 has been a challenging year at Casa de Swan. KJ, my life partner of 29 years – my wife of 25 and a half years – passed away in July after a lengthy battle with breast cancer and degenerative liver disease. One might suppose that, in the wake of such a monumental tragedy, it would be more difficult than usual to find gratitude in my heart for the trivial accoutrements of life.

Truth to tell, however, I could write several dozen of these lists – the X’s, Q’s, and Z’s would get tough after a while – and not exhaust the limitless possibilities of thankfulness. If I’ve learned anything from recent experience, it’s not to take anything or anyone in my life for granted.

Before I delve into this year’s alphabetical progression, I’m going to take time for some special acknowledgments that belong on a list all to themselves.

I’m thankful for every moment of every day KJ and I were blessed to share together. Like all couples, we had glorious times and dark days, sunshine and struggle, soaring heights and devastating lows. Through it all, we never stopped loving each other. KJ’s quiet influence made me a better man, and a better human being. I would not be the me I am today without her. There’s a pretty fair argument to be made that I would not even be alive today without her. She has been the single most powerful presence in my life. She was my lover, my companion, my good right hand, and my very best and closest friend. I miss her terribly. I am grateful for all that she gave me, and I am especially grateful that she is now at peace.

I’m thankful for The Daughter, who, like her mother before her, makes me a better person just by being around me. KM has been a model of strength and perseverance throughout her mother’s illness, and in the aftermath of her death. She is everything any father could ask a daughter to be – kind, respectful, sweet, helpful, diligent in her studies, and quite often, wickedly funny. You would love her if you knew her, because everyone who knows her already does. She will graduate from university in May after just four years, even though her entire college career has been overshadowed by her mother’s failing health. You go, Supergirl — I am more proud of you than you will ever know.

I’m thankful for my parents-in-law, whose support and compassion has been invaluable in these haunted times. They have never stopped regarding me as their son, even though, technically speaking, the contractual connection between us no longer exists. This hard road would have been impassable without them sharing it with The Daughter and me. I will be forever grateful to them for all their help, encouragement, and love.

I’m thankful for the three communities of people whose fellowship has buoyed me over the tempest this year: my church family; my chorus family – the incomparable men of Voices in Harmony, and their significant others; and the family of Bay Area voice actors with whom I work and study at Voicetrax San Francisco. All of them have aided me in ways of which they are likely not even aware. I love them, every one.

And now, in keeping with our long-standing tradition, I’m also thankful for…

Abby, my personal assistant. Her typing is abysmal, her filing skills nonexistent, and she leaves her toys and chew bones strewn about the office, but she’s as warm and furry as any daily companion could ever be.

My BlackBerry Torch. It’s hard now to imagine how I functioned for so many years without a smartphone. It has made life easier and more organized in ways that I’d never have imagined – especially considering the fact that I rarely use the actual phone. The e-mail access, text messaging, GPS navigation, and instant updates from the Weather Channel and ESPN all pay for themselves ten times over.

Comic Art Fans, the home of my online art gallery and those of hundreds of other comic art collectors. The estimable Bill Cox has built, and continues to refine, an invaluable resource for participants in our hobby – and doesn’t even make us pay for the privilege of using it unless we choose to. (I do. Gladly.)

Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the nonpareil voice-recognition software by Nuance Communications. I’m now on my third iteration of Dragon, and the program just keeps getting better and better. It’s an incredible timesaver for clumsy typists like myself. In fact, I’m dictating this blog post with it.

The Eagles, one of my all-time favorite American rock bands. Do I ever get tired of listening to Hotel California? No, I do not. They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast.

Faith. I always knew it was important. Until this year, I’m not sure I understood exactly how important.

My beloved San Francisco Giants, who this year won their first World Series championship in 52 seasons by the Bay. For diehard fans like The Daughter and myself, the joyous accomplishment of the Orange and Black couldn’t have come at a better time. Big-Time Timmy Jim, Shotgun, Buster, Huff Daddy, The Boss, BWeez, Pat the Bat, Magic Juan, J-Lo, Fast Freddy, Andres the Giant, MadBum, and the rest of the crew brought a ray of soul-cheering sunshine to a dismal summer.

The House Jacks, the original rock band without instruments. Their latest album, Level, flat-out kicks butt. (You can buy it on iTunes. And you should.) I’ll be seeing The Jacks live at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley on December 11, as an early birthday present to myself.

“Indian Food,” our household nickname for Stephen Curry, the Golden State Warriors’ premier point guard. We like our Indian Food hot and spicy, dishing the rock, and bombing away from outside the arc.

Jury duty, which may, I know, seem like an odd thing for which to be thankful. I haven’t written much about it for reasons that will become immediately obvious, but I served on a jury this year that convicted a man of murder. It was a harrowing month-long experience, and yet one that I am glad I underwent — and which I will never forget.

KJ. As previously noted, I can’t say enough how thankful I am for her life.

Ladybugs, KJ’s personal totem. The Daughter and I refer to the mausoleum where KJ is encrypted as the Ladybug House. She would have liked that.

Memories – I have so many precious ones to treasure. With God’s blessings and a fair wind, perhaps I’ll make many more before this trip reaches its terminus.

Nigiri sushi. Man, that stuff is tasty. My favorite bites: tako, ebi, unagi, hamachi, and the ineffable toro.

Old school. That’s how I like my music. That’s how I live my life. Get off my lawn, you punk kids.

The Princess Bride, one of my best-loved motion pictures of all time. It has taken on a new meaning recently, ever since I came face to face with the real-life Dread Pirate Roberts. I’ll be your Westley any time, Buttercup. Just watch out for that six-fingered man. And, never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

Quail. Cute little birds they are, and yet, they deserve to be persecuted. I’m just looking for a few good recipes.

Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill. Their Taco Tuesdays, when you can score all the fish tacos you can wolf down for $1.25 each, are among the greatest fast food bargains on the planet. Not to mention, delicious.

Supergirl – which, in addition to being my pet name for The Daughter, is also the nom de guerre of one of my favorite superheroines. I crossed an item off my bucket list this year by meeting Helen Slater, the actress who played Supergirl in the 1984 movie, and getting her autograph on the 50th issue of this current Supergirl run, to which she contributed a story. She’s every bit as lovely in person as she is on screen.

Throat Coat, the herbal tea from Traditional Medicinals that is the best friend of voice-using professionals everywhere.

The universe. Standing under a clear night sky never fails to remind me exactly how small and fragile I am. “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, hat is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?” (Psalm 8:3-4).

Voice acting. It took me more than 45 years, but I am at long last becoming what I really want to be when I grow up.

Writing. Where would I be without the mystery and beauty of language? Words truly are my greatest passion. (Well, one of my greatest passions, anyway. Ahem…)

The X factor — that is to say, the unknown. I don’t know what the future holds for me. Whatever it is, I’ll face it head-on. And, knowing me, with a witty quip or three.

Yelp, the ultimate do-it-yourself review site. I’ve lost count of the number of great restaurants – not to mention other businesses – I’ve discovered using this helpful tool. As is the case with Wikipedia, one has to take what’s written on Yelp with a grain of salt, because anyone and his Dutch uncle can get on and write whatever they please. Still, used with discernment, it’s an incredible resource.

Andrew Zimmern, the globetrotting chef and culinary adventurer who hosts Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel. You’d never catch me eating half the items that Andrew is called upon to sample, but I always enjoy journeying vicariously with him to the exotic places he goes, and seeing the amazing array of comestibles enjoyed by people of various cultures around the world.

Last, but by no means least, I am eternally grateful for you, friend reader. May you and the people you love experience the true joy of Thanksgiving this holiday. Please understand that no matter how challenging your life circumstances may seem, you have much for which to be thankful, if you just stop and look around.

Peace to you. And pass the mashed potatoes.

Descent into the Pitt

November 23, 2010

Sad news for genre film fans today: Ingrid Pitt, one of the leading ladies of horror movies during the 1970s, has died — this time, for real — at the age of 73.

Ingrid Pitt, horror superstar

Pitt became a cult star by way of her appearances in Hammer Films’ The Vampire Lovers and Countess Dracula, The House That Dripped Blood from Amicus Productions (generally thought of as “Hammer Lite”), and the seminal psychological thriller, The Wicker Man (the original 1973 classic, not the insipid Nicolas Cage remake).

What many aficionados didn’t realize at the time was that the Polish-born Pitt — née Ingoushka Petrov — was a World War II concentration camp survivor, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a German father. I’m thinking that after enduring the atrocities of Nazi barbarism, facing vampires and other fictional monsters must have been a piece of strudel.

Despite her horror pedigree, Pitt assayed numerous film and TV roles outside the genre, often to positive reviews. She frequently played villainous women who got their fatal comeuppances in the final act. Not content with her onscreen work, Pitt also became a successful writer, penning a dozen or so books, plus reams of magazine and online articles, columns, and stories.

I was a major Hammer horror geek back in my misspent youth. I retain many fond memories of Ingrid Pitt… although in my heart of hearts, I was always a Barbara Shelley man.

Rest in peace, Countess Dracula.

Comic Art Friday: You’ll not see nothing like the Mighty Quinn

November 19, 2010

For the benefit of anyone who may have strolled in late, the cornerstone of my comic art collection is a series of artworks (93, at last count) known collectively as Common Elements. Each Common Elements drawing features at least two — and on occasion, more — comic book heroes and/or heroines who share some quality (similar name, costume characteristic, superpower, etc.), but are otherwise unrelated.

Sometimes the common element is fairly obvious — Mike Grell’s Jon Sable and Silver Sable piece is one such example. But the real treat for me is coming up with a Common Elements pairing so obscure that only the most Holmesian viewer will figure it out without assistance.

Take this latest, from the supremely talented Brazilian artist Al Rio.

Harley Quinn and Snowbird, pencils by comics artist Al Rio

The jester with the potent-looking popgun is Dr. Harleen Quinzel, better known as Batman’s nemesis Harley Quinn. The woman wearing the winglike tiara and cape is Snowbird, a founding member of the Canadian superteam Alpha Flight, and comics’ most prominent (only?) superhero of Inuit — we used to say “Eskimo” back in the day when we were less particular about calling people what they prefer to be called — origin.

So what do a clownish villainess and a heroine from the Great White North share in common? Well, step into the Wayback Machine, my dear Sherman, and I’ll tell you a tale.

In July 1966, folk-rock superstar Bob Dylan was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. Dylan spent most of the next year or so recovering at his home near Woodstock, New York. Toward the end of his convalescence, Dylan and his backup ensemble, Levon and The Hawks — later famous in their own right under a different name, The Band — spent about three months recording a plethora of new material in Dylan’s basement studio. The resulting recordings, together known as the Basement Tapes, floated around in bootleg form for nearly a decade before receiving an officially sanctioned label release in 1975.

One of the earliest leakages from the Basement Tapes sessions was a bouncy comedic number entitled “Quinn the Eskimo.” According to Dylan, the idea for the song came from the 1959 film The Savage Innocents, in which noted Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn stars as an Inuit trapper accused of murder. British pop-rock sensations Manfred Mann (“sensations” is plural because Manfred Mann was the actual name of a band, of which a guy also named Manfred Mann was the leading member) recorded a worldwide hit cover of Dylan’s tune in 1968, retitled as “The Mighty Quinn” — the song’s catchy refrain goes, “Come on without / Come on within / You’ll not see nothing like the Mighty Quinn.” (Manfred Mann — the man, not the band — was born in South Africa as Manfred Lubowitz, which would not have made a very good name for a band at all.)

More than 20 years after the song had been a radio staple, actor Denzel Washington starred in the film The Mighty Quinn. In the movie, Washington’s character Xavier Quinn is not an Inuit trapper, but an American-educated police chief on a small Caribbean island. (Although, let’s be honest — it would be interesting to see Denzel play an actual Eskimo.) In one memorable scene, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, as Xavier’s cabaret-singer ex-wife, performs a reggae remix of the Dylan song.

Given this fascinating show business success story (you were fascinated, weren’t you?), it seemed only natural to me to pair up comics’ most famous Quinn with the medium’s most famous Eskimo. Because, in the words of the song, “When Quinn the Eskimo gets here, everybody’s gonna jump for joy.”

I know I did.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

I have a power ring; I’m just wearing it as a belt

November 17, 2010

Once again, I get robbed.

This year, People Magazine passes me over for its annual Sexiest Man Alive honor in favor of Ryan Reynolds, whose chief claims to fame include (a) portraying comic book superhero Green Lantern (the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, for those of you sufficiently comics-savvy to know that the title of Green Lantern applies to literally dozens of characters in the DC Comics universe) in the upcoming motion picture; and (b) being Mr. Scarlett Johansson.

Okay, so I’m not an alien-tech-equipped superhero, and frankly, I don’t think Ms. Johansson is my type. (Nor, doubtless, I hers.) But just once, you’d think People Magazine could show a little love to those millions of portly middle-aged gentlemen whose sexiness derives, not from matinee-idol looks which, let’s be honest, will need to be propped up with surgery and Botox in a decade or so, but from that most potent of sexual engines: the brain.

Experience and cunning trump chiseled cheekbones and washboard abdominals any time, ladies. Just sayin’.

Can I get a witness?

Comic Art Friday: Wonder Woman Day 2010

November 12, 2010

If you’ve read here often over the past six years, you know that I’m not a big holidays guy. My idea of a good holiday is something like International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which I celebrate faithfully every September 19, or National Gorilla Suit Day, which falls on January 31 each year.

Or, to the point of this post, Wonder Woman Day.

Wonder Woman, pencils by June Brigman, inks by Roy Richardson

Wonder Woman Day was inaugurated five years ago by Andy Mangels, a writer whose stock in trade is popular culture in general, and comics and comics-related media in particular. Andy teamed with Bradley Angle House, a nonprofit shelter for women and children located in Portland, Oregon, to come up with a unique event to raise funds for Bradley Angle, while simultaneously raising public awareness of the need to empower women against domestic violence. Andy’s brilliant idea was to get dozens of comic book artists to donate images of Wonder Woman — the greatest icon of female empowerment — that would then be auctioned off, both online and live at a comics shop in Portland, to support the shelter.

And Wonder Woman Day was born.

Being the avid Wonder Woman fanatic that I am, I’ve been a proud supporter of Wonder Woman Day — even though I got shut out of the auctions the past couple of years. (I have two nice pieces in my Temple of Diana from previous WWDs — one by Michael Bair, and another by Al Rio, the latter of which was later inked by Bob Almond.) When I heard that this year’s event would be the last — I don’t know the reasons, but I suspect that DC Comics’ legal department issued a cease-and-desist — I was determined to come away with another addition to my Wonder Woman gallery.

In fact, I came up with two.

The inked drawing at the top of this post is the work of one of comics’ few married artistic teams, penciler June Brigman and her husband, inker Roy Richardson. I’ve admired June’s work for quite some time — she cocreated (with writer Louise Simonson) Marvel Comics’ juvenile superteam Power Pack, and for the past 15 years she’s been the artist on the syndicated newspaper strip Brenda Starr (which she took over after the retirement of Comic Book Hall of Fame artist Ramona Fradon). When I saw that June and Roy had contributed one of their collaborations to Wonder Woman Day, I knew I had to own it.

Wonder Woman, pencils by comics artist Roger Medeiros

The pencil drawing above is by Roger Medeiros, a Brazilian artist whose work was previously unknown to me. Roer has done some licensing art for Hasbro Toys (G.I. Joe packaging), and contributed to one of the recent Dungeons and Dragons volumes. If this gorgeous drawing is representative of his talents — and trust me, Roger’s design sense and pencil technique is pristine viewed up close — this young man is going to be a star in the comics world in short order.

I’m sorry to see Wonder Woman Day go. I understand that the event will evolve into another format next year — probably into “Superheroines Day” or something similar — but I thought its connection to the most recognizable female icon in comics gave it cachet. Don’t things always suck when the attorneys get involved?

Remember this: Every day in America, thousands of women and children become victims of domestic violence. As a society, we can’t afford to turn a blind eye. We need to teach our sons that abusing those who are physically weaker is never, ever acceptable behavior, and that violence is never, ever an appropriate channel for anger. We need to teach our daughters never, ever to accept being abused, and never to fear calling for help when they need it.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.