Archive for the ‘Dead People Got No Reason to Live’ category

This one’s for the boobies

October 3, 2011

It hardly seems as though it’s been a year, but it’s October again. You know what that means: It’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Pink ribbon

Those of you who’ve visited here and at our previous location know that I’m not big on causes, but I champion this one for a powerful personal reason: KJ, my wife of 25 years — and life partner of 29 years total — lost her decade-long battle with breast cancer in July 2010. This disease cost KJ’s parents their only remaining child (KJ’s brother died from Ewing’s sarcoma 22 years ago), my daughter her mother, and me the woman I’d loved my entire adult life.

So yeah — breast cancer made itself a lifelong enemy here.

If you’re a woman, know your risk factors. Talk with your doctor about those risks. Learn to examine your own breasts, and conduct those exams religiously. Don’t think that breast cancer is just a disease for older women — KJ was 34 when she was first diagnosed. If you’re 40 or older, by all means get annual mammograms.

If you’re not a woman, pass the preceding paragraph along to every woman you know.

Regardless of your gender, if you have a few spare dollars in your pocket or purse this month, consider making a contribution to the breast cancer awareness/research nonprofit of your choice. (KJ’s favorite was Susan G. Komen for the Cure.) I know things are tough economically for a lot of you, but every little contribution helps.

Breast cancer will affect one woman in eight — too many precious lives. That’s your wife or partner, your daughter, your sister, your mother, your grandmother, your aunt, your neighbor… maybe you.

Let’s hunt this beast down, and kill it for good.

No Justice for the Maestro

February 22, 2011

I could hardly be more shocked and stunned than I was earlier today, when I read the news of the sudden death of Dwayne McDuffie.

Dwayne McDuffie leads an animation panel, WonderCon 2008

If the name is unfamiliar to you, then I’ll assume that you’re not a fan of either comic books or animation, or if you are, you don’t pay much attention to the names in the credits of either. McDuffie was a prolific writer and editor of comics who became an equally prolific writer, story editor, and producer of animation, primarily for television.

In the former realm, McDuffie created one of the most unique series in the history of comics: Damage Control, which spotlighted the exploits of a company that cleaned up cities after superhero fights. He also co-founded Milestone Media, an entire comics line that focused on bringing greater diversity to the medium, both on the page and behind the scenes. From Milestone’s publications came Static, the young electricity-wielding hero who later went on to star in the long-running and popular animated TV series, Static Shock.

McDuffie’s contributions to animation didn’t end with Static Shock. He served as story editor and producer on the Justice League franchise, as well as on the various iterations of Ben 10. He recently wrote the script for Warner/DC’s latest direct-to-DVD project, All-Star Superman, which debuted in stores — ironically enough — today.

As successful as he became in animation, McDuffie never completely abandoned printed comics. A few years ago, he wrote an outstanding miniseries for Marvel entitled Beyond!, and a well-regarded run on Fantastic Four. More recently, he breathed fresh life into DC’s tentpole series, Justice League of America.

Unlike many creators, McDuffie maintained a close connection to the readers and viewers who consumed his product. His personal website hosted a thriving online discussion forum, in which McDuffie himself (nicknamed by his fans “The Maestro”) actively participated. Never shy of expressing his opinions — and he had strong opinions about everything — McDuffie in correspondence was much like the characters whose adventures he wrote: witty, thoughtful, and more than a little tough. He gave no quarter, but he had a deft way of disagreeing vehemently with opponents without resorting to ad hominem attacks.

I had the privilege of meeting McDuffie briefly at WonderCon in 2008, following a panel featuring himself and several other top animation writers. (I took the above photo during that panel.) Although I didn’t muster the gumption to mention it to him in person, it was one of my career goals as a voice actor to snag a role in one of the series McDuffie wrote. As recently as a week ago, I’ve participated in workshops where McDuffie scripts served as the fodder for honing my acting chops. I deeply regret that I will never have the opportunity to work with him professionally.

McDuffie spoke and wrote much about the uphill struggle of being an African-American creator in a mainstream comics industry often frustratingly closed to diverse talents and storylines. His founding of Milestone Media represented his best effort at giving other people of color the opportunities that he, like few other creators of his background, had been afforded, and expanding the palette of characters about whom great comics tales could be spun. And yet, McDuffie would have been the first to correct anyone who referred to him as a “great black comics writer” — he was just a darned great writer, period.

A darned great writer, gone far too soon.

Dwayne McDuffie leaves behind his wife, his mother, a monumental legacy of work, and a numberless legion of colleagues and fans who appreciated his character as much as his creative genius. He was a singular talent in two discrete media, and successful in both.

He was just 49 years old — almost exactly two months younger than I. His birthday was yesterday.

Rest in peace, Maestro.

That’s no gorilla, that’s my wife!

January 31, 2011

Another January 31 has arrived, which signals yet another observance of my second-favorite holiday…

It's National Gorilla Suit Day!

It’s National Gorilla Suit Day.

For the non-cognoscenti among us, National Gorilla Suit Day was founded by the late, great Don Martin, longtime cartoonist extraordinaire for MAD Magazine. Martin’s bizarre genius made him a beloved figure among humor aficionados and comic art buffs alike, as well as a corrupting influence on two generations of MAD readers.

Martin was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Comic Artists Hall of Fame in 2004, and deservedly so.

Just be careful if you wander past a Wal-Mart, a biker bar, or a trailer park today. Some of the people you think are wearing gorilla suits… might not be.

Of course, I’ve always been more of an orangutan man, myself.

RIP, Donnie the K

January 18, 2011

This will only mean something to you if you were listening to pop-rock music in the 1960s and ’70s, or watched TV programs of similar vintage revolving around said music.

Don Kirshner is gone.

Kirshner — or Donnie the K, as I like to call him — started out as a Tin Pan Alley music publisher, whose stable included numerous legendary songwriting duos, from Goffin and King to Sedaka and Greenfield. But he became a household name in the ’60s as the impresario behind prefabricated-for-television pop groups such as The Monkees and The Archies.

In the ’70s, Kirshner’s eponymous record label signed the progressive-rock band Kansas, unleashing a string of hits including “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind.”

That same decade, Kirshner began producing and hosting the late-night TV music series, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Donnie the K’s eerily awkward on-camera presence made him the butt of numerous jokes — including an infamous Saturday Night Live sketch starring Paul Shaffer, who later starred in a sitcom produced by Kirshner called A Year at the Top — and proved the venerable maxim that record producers should be neither seen nor heard. Still, the show ran for a decade, and featured pretty much every big-name act in pop music at one time or another.

As a kid who loved the songs of The Monkees and The Archies (“Sugar Sugar” was one of the first mainstream pop records I ever owned), and later as a teenager who was a major-league Kansas fanatic (I celebrated my 19th birthday at a Kansas concert at San Francisco’s Cow Palace), Don Kirshner contributed mightily to the soundtrack of my youth — even though he never sang or played a note. (For which, if his musical talents matched his abilities as a master of ceremonies, the universe should be eternally grateful.)

They also entertain who only sit and write checks.

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.

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.

Real men wear pink

October 1, 2010

It’s that time again: October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month!

If you’ve read this blog often over the past six-plus years, you know that the cause of breast cancer awareness is close to my heart — no pun intended. My wife KJ was first diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2000. In February 2007, a metastasis (that’s a fancy medical term meaning “spread”) of the disease was identified.

And, as most of you know, breast cancer finally claimed KJ’s life on July 5 of this year. She was 44 years old. She had spent nearly one-fourth of her life battling this miserable disease.

We need a cure for breast cancer. Not within the next generation. Not within the next decade. Not a year from now. Today.

Every 69 seconds, a woman somewhere in the world dies from breast cancer. You can’t read that statistic and not be horrified.

One in eight women will be affected by this disease. Your mother. Your sister. Your lover. Maybe you.

If you’re a woman, talk with your personal physician about the preemptive testing program appropriate to your individual risk factors.

If you’re not a woman, encourage all the women you know to follow the above advice.

If you have a few loose dollars in your wallet, consider donating them to the breast cancer charity of your choice. If you need help selecting one, KJ’s favorite was Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Let’s stop having to read obituaries like this one.

Can I get some “Free Bird” up in here?

September 20, 2010

Leonard Skinner, the high school gym teacher from whom the seminal Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd borrowed its name, has passed away at the age of 77.

Skinner spawned the group’s peculiarly (mis)spelled moniker during a conflict with several long-haired male students at Robert E. Lee High, the Jacksonville, Florida school where he taught in the early 1960s. The students, irked at Skinner’s mockery of their flowing manly tresses, displayed their outrage by forming a band and naming it after Skinner. (Which leads one to wonder why more rock bands aren’t named after high school gym teachers. Not to mention mothers, neighborhood bullies, and ex-wives.)

What strikes me as ironic about Skinner’s passing is the fact that he survived almost all of the key members of the band that parodied his name.

Lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backup singer Cassie Gaines were killed in an infamous 1977 plane crash.

Guitarist Allen Collins was seriously injured in an automobile accident in 1986, and died of complications from his injuries in 1990.

Bassist Leon Wilkeson died of chronic liver disease in 2001, at the age of 49.

Keyboard player Billy Powell died of a heart attack in 2009.

Guitarist and vocalist Hughie Thomasson, who joined a latter-day incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd after a long career as the leader of another influential Southern rock band, the Outlaws, died of an apparent heart attack in 2007.

I guess Mr. Skinner got the last laugh.

There is, apparently, no truth to the rumor that the current edition of Skynyrd, which retains guitarist Gary Rossington as the “sole survivor” from the original membership, is planning to release an album entitled Lynyrd Skynyrd Is Dead (And Most of Us Have Been For Some Time).

Schimmel: Censored

September 4, 2010

This morning I awakened to the news that comedian Robert Schimmel had died.

I’d heard that Craigslist was shutting down its “adult entertainment” listings. But this seems like a step too far.

Schimmel was, without question, one of the most “adult” (in the modern sense of the word) entertainers ever to gain a mainstream following. Like his idol Lenny Bruce, and his contemporary predecessors Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Schimmel described the oddities of life using the most scatological language that exists in English. There was no subject Schimmel wouldn’t address in his act — including the most deeply personal aspects of his own life — and no four-, five-, seven-, or twelve-letter word he wouldn’t use in the addressing.

If your average coarse-speaking comic is described as working “blue,” Schimmel was working the indigo edges of midnight.

Schimmel’s caustic comedy arose out of a life that seemed destined to catch every conceivable unfortunate break. The son of Holocaust survivors, Schimmel survived a heart attack, bouts with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and hepatitis C, the death of one of his children from cancer, the breakup of two marriages (just last year, Schimmel was arrested, but not prosecuted,  for assaulting his second wife), and a career that never took the next great leap into super-stardom, largely because his penchant for graphic verbalization made Schimmel anathema to broadcast television.

As is often true of great comedians, Schimmel aimed his humor at himself as often as he pointed it at others. He was fascinating to watch onstage — a slightly built, bald man who almost always performed wearing a suit and tie, Schimmel rarely made eye contact with his audience. (I don’t know whether Schimmel, like another deceased comic, Mitch Hedberg, suffered from stage fright, and avoided looking at patrons for that reason.) His deflected gaze and the defeated, world-weary tone of his voice and body language made his act seem at times like a tortured internal monologue. Watching Schimmel was, for me, like eavesdropping on a man in his bedroom talking to himself, liberated in his speech because he believed that no one else was listening.

It’s fitting of Schimmel that he died in exceptionally tragic fashion — the result of injuries received in an automobile accident in which his teenage daughter was the driver. Schimmel the comedian would have milked that situation for all the profane hilarity he could wring out.

Robert Schimmel was 60.

What’s Up With That? #85: Yes, Jacquelyn, there is a Santa Claus…

September 1, 2010

…but you are not he.

This weird tale comes to us straight out of the pages of EC Comics — or would, if EC Comics were still being published, and were based in Bakersfield, California.

The decomposing corpse of physician Jacquelyn Kotarac, MD, was found lodged in the chimney of her ex-boyfriend’s home, after the good doctor showed off her best impression of St. Nicholas on Christmas Eve.

This brainstorm came after Dr. Kotarac attempted unsuccessfully to break into Mr. Lucky’s bachelor pad last Wednesday evening, using a shovel as a battering ram. Kotarac then climbed onto the roof of the house using a ladder, and slid down the smokestack feet first, apparently unaware that the jolly fat man can only accomplish this task via the power of imagination.

Meanwhile, the ex-boyfriend slipped out the back door.

A woman who was weekend house-sitting for the absent Lothario discovered Dr. Kotarac’s remains on Saturday when she, as the Associated Press so delicately put it, “noticed a stench and fluids coming from the fireplace.”

Don’t jilted lovers just boil rabbits on the stove anymore?

Engineering consultant William Moodie, the ostensible target of Dr. Kotarac’s ardor, said of his departed paramour:

She made an unbelievable error in judgment and nobody understands why, and unfortunately she’s passed away. She had her issues — she had her demons — but I never lost my respect for her.

Issues? Dr. Kotarac makes Lisa Nowak — the infamous diaper-clad NASA astronaut who drove from Texas to Florida to assault her ex-lover’s new squeeze — seem positively sane by comparison.

Let this be a lesson to you medical students: Pay attention in anatomy class. Especially to the lectures on the limits of skeletal flexibility.