Archive for February 2013

With six, you get egg roll

February 27, 2013

Before I get into the meat of today’s post, I want to throw a word of congratulation to Colby Burnett, winner of this season’s Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. As winner of the Teachers’ Tournament this past year, Colby becomes only the second player to graduate from winning one of the show’s special-interest tournaments (College, Teachers’, Teen, and the long-defunct Seniors) to also winning the TOC. (Back in 1989 — the year after my own TOC experience — a guy named Tom Cubbage won the College Tournament before advancing to and winning the TOC. Tom was in my taping group for the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005. I’m pleased to report that he’s done quite nicely for himself, despite having become an attorney.)

Colby blazed through the field in both his tournaments, in both instances going into the last Final Jeopardy! of the two-day final round with an insurmountable lead. He displayed quick buzzer skills, a broad range of knowledge, and a quirky sense of humor throughout. Way to represent, Colby!

Speaking of knowledge and quirky humor, it’s time for an update on my rookie season in LearnedLeague. (For the backstory on this online trivia league, and my participation therein, check out this post.)

Six games into LL56, I’m astounded to find myself in first place in my bracket (or Rundle, as it’s called in LL). Match Day 6 also afforded me my first “six-pack” — that is to say, I answered all six of the day’s questions correctly. (LearnedLeague members — “LLamas” — refer to a six-for-six Match Day as “drinking the beer,” or “downing a six-pack,” which accommodates the soda-swilling teetotalers equally.) I’m not sure that says as much for my prowess as one might suppose, as MD06 appears to have been the easiest day of the season thus far, based on League-wide accuracy statistics. But it sure was nice to get that perfect-score monkey off my back at last.

My opponent for the day earned seven points for his four correct answers, against my nine points and six correct. So I needed a flawless card, or nearly that, to get the victory.

If you’re curious whether you could have “drunk the beer” on this particular round, these were the day’s questions. I’ll give you my thought process after you’ve had a chance to answer.

  • Question 1: This sturdy young woman is the work of what Dutch master? (Click here to view image.)
  • Question 2: Give the term from economics, a portmanteau coined in a 1965 speech to the British parliament, used to illustrate a scenario where prices are increasing at a high rate, economic growth slows, and unemployment remains at a steady high level.
  • Question 3: The most produced variety of sweet cherry in the United States is a cultivar which goes by what name, after the Chinese foreman who worked for the orchardist who created it in 1875?
  • Question 4: Which is the only NFL franchise to have won championships in three different cities? The first two were won in Cleveland and Los Angeles, the third in the team’s current home city, in 1999.
  • Question 5: A collection of figurines kept lovingly on the shelf of an introverted young woman named Laura Wingfield provides the title for what classic play of American theatre?
  • Question 6: A pair of wars were fought in the mid-19th c. between China and the British Empire over restrictive Chinese trade laws, and specifically the trade of what product, in very high demand in China at the time?

Done? Excellent.

The answers follow.

Answer 1: Given that he’s her favorite artist, The Daughter would never have forgiven me if I didn’t immediately recognize this as the work of JAN VERMEER. The title of the painting is The Milkmaid, and it’s probably Vermeer’s second most famous work, after Girl with a Pearl Earring. (The latter, incidentally, is currently here in San Francisco at the DeYoung Museum, as part of a rare North American tour of artworks from the Mauritshuis in the Netherlands. I’m looking forward to seeing “the Dutch Mona Lisa” in person soon.)

Answer 2: I’m far from an expert on economics (just ask the Pirate Queen, who holds both an MBA and a Master’s in Financial Engineering), and I’ve never heard of the 1965 speech mentioned in the clue. However, the conditions sound a lot like what I’ve heard described on news-talk programs as STAGFLATION, which is definitely a portmanteau (a word made by combining two or more existing words). And in fact, it’s the right one.

Answer 3: The only varieties of cherry I can name off the top of my head are Bing, Montmorency, and Maraschino. The last two don’t sound even remotely Chinese, and I’m pretty sure that Montmorency cherries are sour rather than sweet anyway. So BING it had to be.

Answer 4: This was an instaget for me. The NFL franchise now known as the ST. LOUIS RAMS began life as the Cleveland Rams before a lengthy stint in L.A. (1946-1979) and Anaheim (1980-1994) as the Los Angeles Rams. The team moved to St. Louis in 1995, following the Cardinals’ departure for Phoenix. The most common wrong answer to this question was “Oakland Raiders,” who did play in L.A. for a number of seasons in the ’80s and ’90s, but never in Cleveland.

Answer 5: Another instaget. The combination of “collection of figurines” and “classic play” could only mean Tennessee Williams’s THE GLASS MENAGERIE.

Answer 6: This was the only question on this Match Day that I struggled with even slightly. My first thoughts were “tea” and “silk,” but I couldn’t recall any wars being engaged over those commodities, at least not between the British and the Chinese. As I was mulling that over, I thought, “The only wars I can even remember those two countries ever fighting were the Opium Wars… oh, yeah… OPIUM. Duh.” Sometimes, it really is that simple.

How did you do with this set? Did you drink the beer (or soda, if you prefer), or were you a bottle or two short of a six-pack?

I’ve already submitted my answers for Match Day 7. Alas, I won’t be drinking anything but my own sorrows today.

Comic Art Friday: I just called to see if you loved it

February 22, 2013

“Hi, Michael. This is Scott Rosema.”

I’ve taken a few surprising phone calls in my lifetime — some wonderful (“We want you to come play Jeopardy!), others horrific (“Your wife has cancer… again”). One of the more pleasant telephonic surprises began with the two brief sentences in the preceding paragraph.

Iron Man and Iron Fist, pencils by Scott Rosema

The artwork you’re viewing, although officially designated as Common Elements #2, was in fact the first piece I commissioned (in December 2004) with Common Elements specifically in mind, and is the first to reflect the theme in its now-well-established form. (I know, I know — Iron Man and Iron Fist make for a transparently obvious pairing. I got better, okay?) By the time this work arrived in my hands in April 2005, I had commissioned and received a handful of other Common Elements pieces, so I sometimes forget that this one’s conception preceded all of the others.

But I don’t forget that phone call.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the mechanics, commissions fall into two general categories: direct and brokered. The majority of my commissions over the years have been arranged with the artist one-on-one via email. Many others, however, have been worked out through an artist’s broker, representative, or agent. At the time I commissioned today’s spotlighted piece, Scott Rosema‘s commissions were managed by another Scott — last name Kress — whose business is called Catskill Comics. (I have both commissioned and purchased art on numerous occasions through Catskill, and recommend Scott Kress’s services without reservation.) As is typical of a brokered commission, I had no direct communication with the artist during the process. I sent the payment and specifications to Mr. Kress, who forwarded them to Mr. Rosema. After the art was completed, Mr. Rosema mailed the piece to Mr. Kress, who in turn sent it to me. (I wouldn’t usually say “Mr.,” but it sounds less lame than “Scott R.” and “Scott K.”)

I’d had the art in hand for a few days when the phone rang.

“Hi, Michael. This is Scott Rosema.”

This being very early in my commissioning career, my immediate thought was that something had gone wrong. Had Scott not received the correct payment? Did he think he’d made an error in the drawing? Had he or Scott Kress accidentally stuck someone else’s commission in the package along with mine, and I’d failed to notice?

None of these fears proved valid.

The truth was that Scott simply wanted to know whether I was happy with the work he’d done. He had enjoyed the project, and wanted to be sure that I was equally pleased.

I was stunned. To me, comic artists still seemed a bit like unapproachable demigods, from whose gifted imaginations and dexterous fingers sprang the legends that fueled the fantasies of my youth. Only a few months previously, I wouldn’t have imagined that one of these lofty superbeings would even deign to draw something just for me, as opposed to the pages of comic books that were read and loved by millions of fans.

And now, a member of the Pantheon had dialed up my home number — not to rage and threaten, but to seek my approval.

It was almost too much.

I felt a bit like Ralphie on Santa’s lap in A Christmas Story. I knew that there were such things as words, and I was certain that I knew some — I was even reasonably confident that I had spoken some at one time or another — but getting my brain to unleash them and push them outward through my lips and tongue seemed an impossible task. I probably sounded to the man on the other end of the telephone line like a blithering moron as I fumbled to express my appreciation. I might as well have been trying to shout “AARON BURR!” with a mouthful of peanut butter and a dearth of milk.

Somehow, with the air as thick as molasses in my larynx, I managed to communicate to Scott that I was indeed quite thrilled with his drawing — not to mention his call.

In the years since, I’ve come to know a number of comic artists — and artist’s representatives — rather well. Several have even become friendly acquaintances and semi-regular correspondents. I’ve gained comfort in knowing that even the most talented of artists are just folks, who like to be appreciated for their abilities, and for themselves.

But I’ll never forget the first artist who picked up the phone to make that lesson personal.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Welcome to the Rundle

February 20, 2013

I won my first match in LearnedLeague last night.

Now I have to explain to the rest of you what that means.

RankinsM LL flag

LearnedLeague is an online trivia league, populated by more than 1200 players from all over the globe. (The preponderance of the League resides in North America, but there are a surprising number of folks on other continents.) Among the membership, you’ll find college quiz bowl stars, pub quiz mavens, crossword puzzle fanatics, and — not surprisingly — quite a few of my fellow Jeopardy! champions, including the nonpareil Ken Jennings.

Admission to LearnedLeague is by invitation only, so you have to be referred by a current member in order to join. However, previously posted questions are openly accessible on the League’s website, so anyone can challenge themselves by playing along. I scoured the archives diligently for months before I scored my invitation. (Speaking of which, my sincere thanks to Paul Paquet, proprietor of the Trivia Hall of Fame, for referring me into LL.)

Players compete in one-on-one matches each weekday over a 25-game season. (The current season is the League’s 56th –LL56 in League nomenclature. Four seasons are conducted each year, roughly once per calendar quarter.) For each match, six questions spanning a broad variety of topics are posted. Each player has 24 hours to access the questions and upload answers, with a strict honor-system understanding that the player will use only the knowledge residing inside his or her noggin — no reference materials or web searching permitted. The somewhat relaxed time element can be either a blessing or a curse. You have plenty of opportunity to mull over the questions and dredge up that obscure factoid lurking in the deepest recesses of your brain. You also have ample chance to overthink, and talk yourself out of a perfectly valid response.

Modeled after international soccer leagues, LearnedLeague divides its participants into ranked brackets called Rundles. Each Rundle contains an even number of players, between 24 and 32 (most commonly, 26). The Rundles are stacked by player performance, with the League’s top 26 players assembled in the Championship Rundle. The next-best players compete in one of several A-level Rundles; there are also B, C, D, and E-level Rundles. All first-time players such as myself are assigned to R (for Rookie) Rundles. This helps ensure that participants compete against others who are at a similar skill level. (To illustrate how essential that is, consider that the most recent winner of Championship Rundle scored 98.7% correct during the season.) The ultimate goal is to win enough matches to advance to a higher level Rundle for the following season (called Promotion), or at least to avoid being demoted to a lower Rundle (called Relegation).

What differentiates LearnedLeague from any other trivia competition I’ve encountered is the element of defense. In addition to answering the day’s six questions, each player must assign point values to those questions, from which her or his opponent’s score will be calculated. You assign three points to the question you believe your opponent is least likely to answer correctly, making it the highest-valued. The two questions you think are next in descending order of difficulty, you assign two points each; the next two, one point each. The question you believe will be the easiest for your opponent gets a value of zero, meaning that even if the other player gets it right, they don’t add any points for doing so. A perfect score on all six questions is nine points (3+2+2+1+1+0).

Likewise, your opponent will assign values to the questions based on what he or she thinks will be most or least difficult for you. You have no way of knowing when you submit your answers what point values have been attached to each. That information is only revealed at the conclusion of the 24-hour match period. So, unlike Jeopardy!, where a $200 answer is always $200, and a $2000 answer always nets you $2000 (unless it’s a Daily Double), answering any of the six questions correctly in a LearnedLeague match might earn you three points, two points, or one point, or it might earn you no points at all, depending on how your opponent assessed the values.

This makes defense critically important to winning a match. It’s entirely possible — in fact, it happens frequently — that you might answer more questions correctly than your opponent does, and still lose the match. Let’s say you get four answers right. Your competitor has preassigned those four items values of 2, 1, 1, and 0 points. That makes your total score 4 — or as it’s represented in LearnedLeague standings, 4(4) with game points preceding the parentheses, and the number of correct answers within the parentheses. Suppose your opponent only answers two questions correctly, but you’ve assigned those questions values of 3 and 2. Your opponent’s score is 5(2). Because only the game points determine the winner and loser of the match, your competitor snatches the victory — even though you came up with twice as many correct responses.

As you can see, the more you know about the person you’re playing against, and the parameters of her or his knowledge base, the more effectively you can assign points on defense. To facilitate this, the LearnedLeague site compiles detailed statistics about every player, so you can see at a glance how well he or she has performed in various categories. For those of us playing in our first League season, there’s not much information yet to go on. But this profile data becomes more useful the longer a player continues in the League, as his or her strengths and weaknesses become clearer.

(Did I mention that every LLama — that’s insider-speak for a LearnedLeague member — has his or her own flag? That’s mine at the top of this post. Having my own flag is wicked cool.)

I was first introduced to LearnedLeague at the inaugural Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA) in 2011. LearnedLeague at TCONA is played in a modified live format — instead of Rundles, the field is divided into eight-player tables, and the matches are played at a rapid pace, allowing players only four minutes to record their answers and assign defense points. The first round consists of seven matches, so everyone at a given table has one match against each tablemate. The winner of each table advances to the next round of play, an elimination round in which only the winners of each individual match continue. Ultimately, the two players left standing face off for the title.

At TCONA ’11, I won my table (despite the fact that I was new to the game and didn’t understand the scoring system all that well — which is an ego-preserving way of saying that I didn’t understand it at all) and found myself in the quarterfinals alongside Jeopardy! legends Ken Jennings and Jerome Vered. I lost my first elimination match (not to either Ken or Jerome, not that that’s any consolation), but felt vindicated to be in such lofty company. This past year, I finished second at a table that included another Jeopardy! veteran and LLama, Dr. Shane Whitlock.

So what’s a LearnedLeague match like? I’m glad you asked. Here’s how my first match of LL56 went down.

Question 1: Geography — France is divided into 27 régions, which are divided into 101 départements, which are further divided into 342 districts known by what term?

I stewed over this one for a while, because I knew that I had heard this somewhere (possibly, on Jeopardy!) very recently. I couldn’t dredge it up, though. Instead, I answered “cantons,” which was the only French administrative division that popped into my head. The correct answer is ARRONDISSEMENTS. My opponent got this question right, but unfortunately for him, I’d assigned it a value of zero. Which, as it turned out, was the best move — statistically, this was the easiest question of the match (meaning that, Leaguewide, more players answered this question correctly than any other question). Just not for non-Francophile me.

Question 2: Literature — Thanks to his famous literary depiction, who is the best known king to have ruled the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk (outpacing Lugalbanda, Enmerkar, and Dumuzid, among others)?  Often on Jeopardy!, keeping the category in mind helps you focus on the correct response. The fact that this question was classified as Literature rather than History pointed me quickly to the right answer: GILGAMESH. He’s the only Sumerian king I could think of who’s also a famous literary character. (And a Marvel Comics superhero, not that that’s germane to the question.) Had this been designated a History question, I might well have struggled between Gilgamesh and Sargon (thereby exhausting the names of Sumerian kings I know). My esteemed opponent gave me two points for this correct reply; he answered incorrectly. [EDIT: As noted in the comments below by fellow LLama Bill Penrose, the categories don’t appear until the answers are revealed. I clearly sussed this out from the reference to “famous literary depiction” in the original clue. Seriously, I should not write from memory about something I did at 1 a.m. 36 hours ago. — Uncle Swan.]

Question 3: Film — The seminal 1984 comedy film Stranger Than Paradise was the first major work from what acclaimed independent filmmaker? As an actor and former film critic, I’m embarrassed to admit that I missed this. I put down “Spike Jonze” as my response; the correct answer, of course, is JIM JARMUSCH, which I remembered the instant I saw the answer key. Ah, well. My opponent earned himself two points for his accurate response.

Question 4: Games/Sport — The items in this photograph are used primarily (and quite importantly) in what sport? It pays to watch television. Just one week earlier, the Pirate Queen and I had watched a Season Three episode of Downton Abbey that depicted a CRICKET match. The second I saw this photograph, I recognized these wooden pegs as the little crosspieces that rest atop the posts of a cricket wicket. That lightning bolt of recognition garnered me three points, while my opponent guessed incorrectly. Thank you, Julian Fellowes.

Question 5: The largest vein in the human body, which returns deoxygenated blood from the lower part of the body into the heart, is known specifically as what (three words)? I’m not a doctor, but I know how to play one. I worked in the healthcare industry for nearly a dozen years, about half of which I spent in a job that required me to review copious numbers of medical records. So I actually know a considerable amount about anatomy and medical terminology. I was surprised that this question was the stumper of the match day — only 27% of the League got this one correct. I’m guessing that a lot of people put down “superior vena cava,” thinking that “superior” meant “largest.” In fact, the correct response is INFERIOR VENA CAVAinferior because it enters the heart from the bottom, while the superior vena cava enters from the top. It’s tricky. (I’ll bet Shane Whitlock aced this one. Had I been playing him in this match, I would have valued this at zero.) I earned two points for the right answer, which my opponent did not come up with.

Question 6: Flaming Pie, Run Devil Run, Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, Memory Almost Full, and Kisses on the Bottom are the six most recent rock studio albums (and, strictly speaking, numbers 10-15 overall) released by what solo artist? The only one of these album titles that rang any bells at all was Memory Almost Full, but that little tickle did not lead me to PAUL MCCARTNEY. Instead, I took a wild flailing guess and said “Captain Beefheart,” who was also fond of bizarre album titles — his discography includes such works as Bat Chain Puller, Trout Mask Replica, and Ice Cream for Crow. My esteemed opponent appears to be no more fond of Macca’s later works than am I, because he missed this one too.

If you run the numbers, my final score for this match was 7(3) — I earned seven match points (2+3+2) with my three correct responses. My opponent scored 4(3) — he also got three correct answers, but picked up only four match points for them (0+2+2). Thus, even though we each answered the same number right, I won the match on points… which illustrates why defense is so important to LearnedLeague success. (My defensive “prowess” on this initial Match Day can be chalked up to sheer beginner’s luck.)

I’ll drop in periodic updates as my LearnedLeague experience progresses. And if you’re a fellow LLama (the official nickname for League members), perhaps we’ll cross swords on some future match day. I’m in Rundle R Central, and my Player Name is RankinsM. You’ll recognize me by my flag.

Comic Art Friday: Justice may be blind, but it can see in the dark

February 15, 2013

One of my personal projects for this year is building a database for my comic art collection. As astounding as this may seem, given that I’ve been collecting art for nearly a decade now, I don’t have a comprehensive catalog of everything I own.

My online gallery at Comic Art Fans showcases practically all of my art, but there’s no easy way from there to compile a simple list that contains every item. Plus, there’s information about each artwork that I’d like to capture, but that isn’t included in the CAF listing. My late first wife KJ helped me create an Excel spreadsheet many years ago, but spreadsheets and I don’t speak the same language — I’m a writer, not an accountant — so that document hasn’t been updated in, like, eons. The other night, I took a 12-part online tutorial in the basics of Access, Microsoft’s database program, and I believe I now have a tool that will accomplish what I need.

As I fill the database — which is going to take some time, since I have close to 400 individual pieces to catalog — I’m going through my portfolios and taking a fresh look at each physical artwork, as opposed to the digital images that reside in my computer and online. There are practical reasons for this: I want to (a) verify what I still own, because I’ve sold or traded some pieces over the years, and haven’t always been meticulous about noting that those items have moved on to new owners; and (b) document the dimensions of each piece, and I can’t tell what sizes things are from the scans.

There’s an even more important reason, though, for reconnecting with each piece in my collection, especially those that I didn’t commission personally. For the preexisting pieces, it’s nice to be reminded of why I bought them in the first place.

Both of the artworks we’re featuring today sprang from the hand of the same talented artist — James E. Lyle, who signs his work “jel” and is known to his friends as Doodle. I acquired both pieces in March 2005 from the same vendor, who if I recall correctly was selling them on Doodle’s behalf. Over the next several months, I commissioned three new pieces from Doodle directly, including two for my Common Elements theme. His work has many wonderful qualities that I enjoy — strong lines, expressive characters, exquisite costume detailing, and an old-school, retro feel that breathes and radiates the comics of my youth. He also uses shadows (or “spots blacks,” as they say in artist lingo) as effectively as anyone in the business, as you’ll see in a moment.

Black Canary, pencils and inks by James E. Lyle

Doodle titled this first item “Canary in a Coal Mine,” and it’s easy to see why. His juxtaposition of Black Canary against a solid black background make for a bold, arresting image, despite the relaxed posture of the subject. This piece has consistently ranked among the most-viewed items in my online gallery over the years.

For me, Lyle’s Canary reflects a humanity that we don’t often see in our superheroes. It reads to my eye as though Dinah Drake Lance has come home from a long, arduous night of fighting crime, and she wants nothing more than to just sit down and rest. She just walked through the door of her home and plopped down on the sofa. She doesn’t even have the strength left to completely remove her jacket. And yet, exhausted though she is, there’s a trace of a smile on Dinah’s lips as she reflects on the lives she’s saved and the evildoers she’s sent off to prison. It’s been a tough battle, but a job well done.

I also like that Doodle has given his Canary naturalistic proportions. Her figure is a bit fuller and softer than the typical mainstream comics artist would draw. She looks less like an idealized, male-power-fantasy caricature of a woman, and more like an actual woman. If there were a Black Canary in real life, she’d probably be closer to Lyle’s depiction than to that of whoever’s drawing her at DC this month.

Next, Doodle presents his take on Doctor Mid-Nite, a favorite hero of mine from comics’ Golden Age. In contrast to Black Canary, Mid-Nite finds himself in the heat of battle, facing down an unseen enemy. I think Doctor Mid-Nite’s original costume as seen here is one of the best superhero designs ever — the guy just looks like a superhero, and he also looks totally cool. (Credit Mid-Nite’s co-creator, artist Stanley Aschmeier — a.k.a. Stan Josephs — for his timeless style.)

Doctor Mid-Nite, pencils and inks by James E. Lyle

Lyle invests meticulous attention in the minute details of the good doctor’s outfit, taking care to get every crease and fold in Mid-Nite’s tunic, gloves, and boots exactly right. The smoke effect generated by Mid-Nite’s blackout bomb is also beautifully done. And, like his Black Canary, Doodle’s Doctor Mid-Nite is perfectly, realistically proportioned. He appears strong and sturdy, but his muscularity doesn’t brand him as a steroid junkie or a freak of nature.

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of a blind superhero (which Doctor Mid-Nite is, for those not up on their comics lore). When I was a kid, Daredevil was one of my favorite characters. (I haven’t been able to stomach DD’s modern adventures since Frank Miller gave the character an unnecessarily antiheroic spin in the early ’80s, a trend that subsequent creators appear to have followed. But those Silver and Bronze Age Daredevil stories — including that early ’70s run where he’s partnered with the Black Widow — remain classics.)

Tangentially related: I was a major fan (come to think of it, perhaps the only fan) of CBS’s 1990s late-night TV drama Dark Justice, about a criminal court judge who moonlights as a vigilante, rounding up malfeasants who previously escaped punishment through loopholes in the legal system. The lead character in Dark Justice was not visually impaired, but he had a habitual quirk of telling his foes, “Justice may be blind, but it can see in the dark.” I always wanted to add, “So can Doctor Mid-Nite. And Daredevil.”

It’s been 20 years since that series last aired, but I still recall it vividly as a great concept. Someone should pick up the rights and resurrect it. (A bit of Dark Justice trivia: Although the show was set in an unnamed American metropolis, its first season was filmed in Barcelona, Spain, shortly before the 1992 Summer Olympics were held there. Part of the fun of watching those early episodes was trying to catch the instances when the production team failed in its efforts to make Barcelona look like, say, Los Angeles.)

But I digress.

Sometimes people ask me whether there’s a difference in my mind between the artworks I’ve commissioned and those I’ve purchased. To be frank, there usually is — I have a deeper, more visceral attachment to my commissions because they would not exist had I not hired an artist to create them. My theme commissions, especially, reflect my personal tastes and vision in a manner than no preexisting piece ever could. There are, however, some pieces I’ve picked up over the years that I absolutely love, as much as any I’ve commissioned, because they just speak to me in a special way, and at a unique level.

You’ve just seen two of them.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: The brother from another mother

February 8, 2013

In the nascent days of my Common Elements commission theme — before I had any clue it would take on a life of its own, spawning well over 100 commissions to date — the connections between the featured characters were often simple and rather obvious. (Sometimes they still are.) And yet, even in those early concepts, my subconscious frequently bubbled up a more subtle subtext.

That’s certainly true in Common Elements #3, which I commissioned on New Year’s Day 2005. Artist Jeffrey Moy — probably best known for his work on DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes — served up this pinup-style piece pairing Luke Cage, Power Man with Karen Starr, Power Girl.

Power Girl and Power Man, pencil art by Jeffrey Moy

The superficial common element between Luke and Karen is pretty clear — they both have the word “Power” in their fighting identities. (Cage long ago abandoned the “Power Man” handle — as well as the flashy outfit — and now simply goes by his own name.) The pair, however, share another commonality, in that they represent caricatures of masculinity (Cage with the open shirt displaying his bulging musculature — a shirt which had the unusual knack of getting shredded off his torso in practically every issue) and femininity (artist Wally Wood famously drew Power Girl’s bust increasingly larger over a several-issue run, until an editor finally took notice and ordered him to quit). Granted, most superheroes — male or female — can be viewed as hypersexualized gender stereotypes, but Cage and Power Girl were created with those stereotypes in mind more flagrantly than others.

None of this has anything to do with the reason why this Common Elements piece marks a milestone in my collecting career. It’s important because it’s the first tangible evidence of my friendship with fellow collector Damon Owens.

After all these years, I don’t recall exactly how Damon and I began corresponding. (Damon probably does, and I’m sure he’ll correct any errant reportage that follows.) I think he might have sent me a note about my Bob McLeod Black Panther commission when I posted it to my Comic Art Fans gallery. Whatever the impetus, it became immediately clear that the two of us shared much in common. (There’s that Common Elements thing again.) Our casual correspondence evolved into a virtual friendship (we’ve never met in person; Damon lives in suburban Houston, while I’m in San Francisco) that persists to this day.

Without question, part of the connection between Damon and me is that we are both African American. That may not sound like a big deal to you, but I can tell you from a long lifetime of experience that black folks (and racial minorities of all shades, for that matter) have historically been underrepresented in science fiction and fantasy fandom in general, and in comic book fandom — okay, let’s call it geekdom — in particular. Thankfully, that’s changing — I see a lot more faces from a lot more races at comics conventions these days than I did in the 1970s, when I would often be the only person of color I encountered at a Star Trek or science fiction con. (Not that I encountered myself. You know what I mean.) But there’s still an element of “hey! another one of us!” when I run into someone of my background who’s into comics; someone who understands firsthand some of my frustrations with the mainstream comics industry’s embarrassing and often downright offensive depictions of black characters (or its failure to depict such characters at all), as well as its corresponding ill-treatment of many talented African American comics artists and writers.

Damon also shares my predilection for theme commissions, though he was in the game long before I was. His collection still contains many incredible pieces that, when I look at them, make me want to pitch all of my portfolios into the nearest Dumpster. (I lie down with a cool compress on my forehead until the temptation subsides.) Damon’s signature theme features The Brotherhood, an Avengers- or Justice League-style assemblage of legendary black superheroes from across the comics industry. He’s gotten some of the top talent in comics to draw scenarios starring these characters, and the results inspire in me both awe and envy.

From the beginning of our friendship, Damon has proven an invaluable resource for artist recommendations. It was Damon who tipped me to Jeff Moy’s availability for commissions, resulting in the piece shown above. This would be the first, but hardly the last, time that my interaction with an artist resulted from an introduction by Damon. In fact, as I’ve been composing this post, I’ve received two emails from an artist who’s working on my latest Common Elements addition — an artist to whom I was referred by the redoubtable Mr. Owens.

Last evening, I attended a screening of the documentary film White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books, at the Museum of the African Diaspora here in San Francisco. Following the screening, the filmmaker, Dr. Jonathan Gayles of Georgia State University in Atlanta, joined us via Skype for a discussion about the film and the issues contained therein. While I didn’t agree with every point made in the film — you know me; do I ever agree 100% with anyone about anything? — I found it a fascinating and enlightening (if occasionally frustrating) conversation. I especially appreciated Gayles’s interviews with the late Dwayne McDuffie, a veteran comics writer who is even better remembered as the story editor and producer of the popular Justice League animated series, as well as such figures as comics historian Bill Foster and writer/producer Reginald Hudlin.

Many of the documentary’s participants related accounts that mirrored my own childhood experiences, in which finding superheroes who looked like ourselves proved challenging. Among my most vivid memories as a young comics reader is the day I found the first issue of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire on a supermarket rack in Kokomo, Indiana, and for the first time saw an African American hero on the cover of a comic with his name in the title. I remember equally well the series of early-1970s issues of Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther, and the run of Captain America and the Falcon — the latter being Marvel’s very first African American hero (the Panther, who preceded the Falcon by a few years, was African, but not American) — during that same time period. These comics and characters weren’t perfect — in those days, their adventures were being scripted almost entirely by writers of the Caucasian persuasion, whose attempts at “black” dialogue often sank to ludicrous depths — but they were steps in a fresh new direction. By the late ’70s, Storm was a major character in X-Men, long-running supporting character Bill Foster (no relation to the comics historian) had taken up the mantle of Goliath, and even the ultraconservative DC had introduced John Stewart (a.k.a. “the black Green Lantern”) and Black Lightning. Again, it wasn’t a lot, but it was something.

Diversity remains a problem in comics, not just for black fans, but for Latino and Asian readers as well. The list of prominent non-Caucasian superheroes remains a short one, and the list of such characters that aren’t stereotypical in some way is shorter yet. (One of my favorite recent additions to the superhero pantheon is DC’s Mister Terrific, the rare black comics hero whose race is almost entirely incidental to the nature of his presentation.) And that’s not even considering the depiction of female characters, or gay characters of either gender, in mainstream comics. The industry still has a long way to go toward realistic, genuinely human portrayals of characters who aren’t white males (or, as in the case of Superman, space aliens who conveniently happen to look like Caucasian human males). As a wise person once observed, the wheels of progress grind slowly. But grind they must.

I look forward to the day when all comics readers — people of every ethnicity, gender, background, and orientation — can open a comic book (or view a digital comic, as the future of the industry lies in that direction) and see heroes and heroines with whom they can fully identify, and in whom they can see the materialization of their own fantasy selves. Won’t that be awesome?

After all, our most precious Common Element is our humanity.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: If it ain’t broke, don’t Vixen

February 1, 2013

Back in the early weeks of 2005, I was still just beginning to get my head around the notion that actual comic book artists — people whose work I’d seen and admired on the four-color printed page — would draw pictures just for me, if I offered them money. My first visit to a comics convention boggled my mind with a fresh new dimension: comic book artists would sometimes draw pictures just for me, while I watched.

I suppose it’s not entirely accurate to say that WonderCon 2005 was my initial foray into the con scene. During my high school days in the 1970s, I was active in Star Trek fandom — shocking, I know, but yes, I was a hardcore Trekkie — and attended several Trek conventions here in the Bay Area. (I should tell some of those stories sometime.) I also went to at least one comics-focused con a few years after that, but memory blurs the details. It might have been one of the early iterations of WonderCon, when the event was still being held in Oakland.

WC ’05, however, holds the distinction of being my first con as a comic art collector. More specifically, it yielded the first artwork I ever commissioned in person: this gracefully brush-inked sketch of Vixen, by the comic artist known as Buzz.

Vixen, pencils and inks by comics artist Buzz

Thinking about it now, I don’t remember precisely why I chose Vixen –noteworthy as DC Comics’ first African American superheroine — as the character whose likeness I wanted to commission on this particular occasion. I think I had read somewhere that one might be more likely to get a drawing from an artist at a con if one asked for something out of the ordinary. I figured that Vixen, while not a completely obscure character, probably spawned fewer requests than, say, Wonder Woman. Plus, she looked cool.

I chose Buzz to draw her because… well… he was the first artist whose table I approached where there wasn’t a line ahead of me.

A serendipitous choice, in the end, because Buzz created a striking image. He also didn’t seem to mind my periodic hovering over his shoulder as the piece took shape over several hours. The process fascinated me. I’ve seen painters doing their thing — I couldn’t tell you how many episodes of Bob Ross’s PBS series I’ve watched — and I’ve observed artists sketching in pencil and charcoal, but I had never really watched anyone work with ink before. Even though I’d been looking at comics for decades by this time, I’d never given much thought to the idea that inking might be done with a brush. The word ink always suggested a pen to me, so I’d supposed that comics were inked with something along the line of a fountain pen. (Which I now understand is often the case. Some inkers prefer pen, others brush, and many use both, depending on the demands of the work at hand.)

Buzz’s finished Vixen image evolved from his second stab at the drawing. He spent quite a bit of time puzzling out exactly how he wanted to compose the shot — given the nature of the character, he wanted a look that read both beautiful and feral. He’d actually begun sketching out a pose before he decided to start over from scratch. Rather than erasing his initial rough, Buzz flipped the board over and resumed drawing on the opposite side. Which means, of course, that his first attempt remained intact on the reverse.

Buzz Vixen preliminary pencil sketch

Buzz didn’t ask me (at least, I don’t recall that he did), but I would have been perfectly pleased had he continued down his original path. Then again, I’m easy to please when it comes to the art I commission. As an artist myself — albeit in the very different milieus of writing and acting — I understand the compulsion to get the work right, according to one’s inner muse. When I write, for example, I hyper-edit. Unlike many writers, who will blow through a quick first draft just to get the ideas on the page (or screen), I dither over every sentence before I move on to the next. The fact that I’m a painfully slow typist* facilitates this; I have a fair amount of time to look at my words. The end result is that, although it takes me longer than most to get to the end of my first draft, it’s usually close to final product. I’ll do a sanity read-through to clean up typos and to fact-check, but I rarely need an extensive rewrite.

My intensively analytical creative approach is, on the other hand, sometimes crippling to me as an actor. But that’s a whole other post.

Buzz’s real name, in case you were curious, is Aldrin Aw. If you know your space exploration history, you’ll see where his nom de plume comes from.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

*Swan Factoid: I can’t touch-type. I’ve tried to learn, repeatedly — I took two typing classes in school, and I’ve tested several versions of typist-training software — but my brain and my hands just don’t work together that way. Although I know the QWERTY keyboard cold, I manipulate it mostly with my two index fingers, plus the middle finger of my left hand. My typing style has been described as “two crabs fighting.” It’s not terribly efficient or speedy, but it works.)