Archive for the ‘That's Cool!’ category

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 40-33

February 25, 2020

[NOTE: The Steely Dan 64 Project represents my ranking, in order of my personal preference, of the 64 songs released by Steely Dan during their “classic” period (1972-80). You’ll find a detailed introduction to the project, as well as notes on the songs I’ve numbered 64 through 57, HERE. Songs 56 through 49 are discussed HERE. Songs 48 through 41, you’ll find HERE.]

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40. Any World (That I’m Welcome To) (Katy Lied)
I’ll be ready when my feet touch ground
Wherever I come down
And if the folks will have me
Then they’ll have me

Proof that Becker and Fagen were capable of writing a straightforward pop song when they were of a mind to do so. Of course, it stops being straightforward when you realize that the tasteful backbeat is being supplied by perhaps the greatest session drummer in the history of recorded music, the one and only Hal Blaine. If you have to find a last-minute fill-in for Jeff Porcaro, who handles the drumming duties on the rest of Katy Lied, you could do worse than Hal Blaine. In fact, pretty much anyone else you asked would have been worse than Hal Blaine.

I’ve always identified with the sense of wistful alienation embodied here, that feeling of not quite belonging and longing for a place where one truly could. I keep hoping that I’ll find that world where I’m welcome.

39. Bodhisattva (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Can you show me
The shine of your Japan?
The sparkle of your China?

I know that a lot of you will have “Bodhisattva” much higher in your personal rankings, and that’s fine. But I come to Steely Dan in large part for the lyrical creativity, and there’s not much of that in this song. That said, for what it is — basically, a riff-off between the band’s (they were still an actual band at the time of this second album) two guitarists, Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter — “Bodhisattva” is still pretty darned good. I would just enjoy it a little bit more had Becker and Fagen squeezed just a couple more verses in between the jams.

38. Change of the Guard (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
If you wanna get thru the years
It’s high time you played your card
If you live in this world
You’re feelin’ the change of the guard

As we’ve discussed in earlier installments, at the time of the band’s debut album, Donald and Walter were still figuring out exactly what they wanted Steely Dan to be — and no doubt, their record label had some ideas about that as well. So we get a lot more compact, potentially radio-friendly rock numbers on Can’t Buy a Thrill than the Dan would serve up later in their career. But when you can turn Skunk Baxter loose to rip a couple of guitar solos to shreds, there’s nothing wrong with just letting it rock. Skunk serves up a taste here of the licks he’d later make famous as the Doobie Brothers’ lead guitar slinger.

37. The Boston Rag (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Any news was good news
And the feeling was bad at home
I was out of my mind and you were on the phone

It ain’t no drag, that’s for certain. I appreciate the songs from the Dan’s early albums that open a window into the musical direction that Becker and Fagen would ultimately pursue. There’s just enough smooth jazz floating through this mishmash of a track to hint at what lay ahead. And by mishmash, I mean there’s a lot going on here, and not all of the pieces seem as though they were intended from the start to fit together. (Where does that weird guitar — at least, I think it’s a guitar — bridge come from? Certainly not Boston.) In retrospect, however, you can listen to this tune and say, “Okay, now I see where this is going.”

36. Sign In Stranger (The Royal Scam)
And who are you?
Just another scurvy brother…

A round of applause, please, for the piano man. Paul Griffin, probably best known for his contributions to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61, Revisited and Don McLean’s American Pie, takes a seat at the keyboard and lets his fingers dance all over this bouncy little number. Griffin’s piano solo alone merits the price of admission, but his easygoing background propels the verses just as nicely. This is not the last time we’ll hear from Mr. Griffin on The Royal Scam — we’ll hear him rock the clavinet on “Kid Charlemagne,” and man the electric piano (and earn a rare co-writing credit alongside Becker and Fagen) on “The Fez.”

35. Your Gold Teeth (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Even Cathy Berberian knows
There’s one roulade she can’t sing

Back in my college days, when a Steely Dan album was spinning on my turntable practically all the time, I expended a fair bit of pre-Internet effort trying to track down the various references that pop up in Dan lyrics. I still recall trekking to the library to listen to a recording by Cathy Berberian, out of curiosity born from endless listening to “Your Gold Teeth.” It was an exercise I did not feel compelled to repeat. But I was happy that the song now made sense.

34. Dirty Work (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
Like the castle in its corner
In a medieval game
I foresee terrible trouble
And I stay here just the same

“Dirty Work” serves as a prime example of how musical perspective evolves over time. When I was first developing an affinity for Steely Dan, “Dirty Work” was one of my least favorite tracks, mostly because I despised David Palmer’s simpering, quavery lead vocal. As a more mature listener, however, I gained the ability to get past my distaste for the specific performance and appreciate the underlying song on its own merits. In particular, hearing “Dirty Work” as Fagen’s current version of the band now performs it live on tour, with the group’s trio of female backing vocalists taking over the leads, gave me renewed affection for it.

I’m still not a David Palmer fan — his label-enforced presence remains for me the weakest element of Can’t Buy a Thrill — but I’ve grown to like this charming, subtly subversive little ditty quite a bit.

33. The Royal Scam (The Royal Scam)
And they wandered in
From the city of St. John
Without a dime

For me, The Royal Scam — the album, not just its titular song — represents the moment when Steely Dan first achieved its full potential, when Becker and Fagen’s mad vision completely coalesced. Every album prior to this one moved a step forward, away from the quirky, eclectic pop-rock band of Can’t Buy a Thrill and toward the jazz-rock, session-legends-melange powerhouse that peaked with Aja. On The Royal Scam, the Dan arrived.

This track, which closes the album, is Walter and Donald saying — like the Caribbean immigrants whose tale the lyrics tell — “We’re here.” See the glory, indeed.

And with that, we’ve reached the halfway mark of this project. 32 songs down, 32 to go. It just keeps getting better from here on up.

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 48-41

February 21, 2020

[NOTE: The Steely Dan 64 Project represents my ranking, in order of my personal preference, of the 64 songs released by Steely Dan during their “classic” period (1972-80). You’ll find a detailed introduction to the project, as well as notes on the songs I’ve numbered 64 through 57, HERE. Songs 56 through 49 are discussed HERE.]

Here’s where it begins to get tough.

I feel pretty strongly about the songs in the bottom one-fourth of the ranking — that is, the sixteen (or, if you’d rather, the two groups of eight) that we’ve already covered — being correctly positioned (at least, for me — your mileage may vary). I don’t believe that any amount of listening and reconsideration would move any of those songs out of my virtual basement. I feel similarly strongly about my top ten or twelve. Those will be my favorites all day, every day.

In between, however, there’s so much excellent music (and so little to nitpick about it) that it’s really difficult to differentiate what makes one song appeal to me more or less than the several others around it. There’s a league of space between songs #12 and #48, to be sure. But between, say, #48 and #24…? Not quite so much.

Let’s just do our best, shall we?

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48. “Glamour Profession” (Gaucho)
Brut and charisma
Poured from the shadow where he stood
Looking good
He’s a crowd-pleasing man

Speaking as a lifelong basketball fan, this song that’s partly about a basketball superstar has always sounded to me as though it was written by people who weren’t really interested in professional sports, or even knew very much about them. I suspect that’s probably true — Becker and Fagen never seemed much like hardcore spectators. On the other hand, “Glamour Profession” is also all about that drug life, and that I do believe Walter and Donald knew something about.

As a song, it’s just alright — as close to slick late-disco-era sheen as the Dan ever got. My main memory of it is that my original vinyl LP of Gaucho had a tiny scratch in one of the long instrumental breaks that caused the record to skip and repeat. Even now, when I listen, I hear that spot replaying over and over again in my head.

47. “I Got the News” (Aja)
Broadway Duchess
Darling, if you only knew
Half as much as
Everybody thinks you do

Proof that Michael McDonald really does make everything better. The slightest song on arguably the Dan’s finest album (we’re not going to hit another Aja track on this list for a good long while, friends), “I Got the News” bounces along just cool and innocuously catchy enough, until the bridge kicks in with those soaring McDonald vocals. All of a sudden, a merely decent tune becomes magical for just a few seconds. I spend the rest of the song waiting for McDonald to come back. He never does.

46. “Everything You Did” (The Royal Scam)
Turn up the Eagles — the neighbors are listening

I’ve never been certain whether the reference to the Eagles here was supposed to be affectionate or derisive. I suspect that when Henley, Frey & Co. returned the favor the following year, in their hit “Hotel California” (the line “they stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast”), they probably weren’t entirely sure, either. But that’s always been part of the Steely Dan mystique — the lyrics can often mean whatever you want them to mean.

45. “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” (Katy Lied)
Kids, if you want some fun
See what you never have seen
Take off your cheaters and sit right down
Start the projection machine

Becker and Fagen never shied away from the seedier elements of modern urban life. That’s nowhere more evident than in this sordid little vignette about a man who screens pornographic films in his home for innocent youth to watch. Hopefully Mr. LaPage either got busted or cleaned up his act somewhere along the line.

The musical highlight here comes from the sparkling vibraphone of Steely Dan stalwart Victor Feldman. (Seriously, when’s the last time you heard a vibraphone on a pop-rock record?)

44. “Monkey In Your Soul” (Pretzel Logic)
Won’t you turn that bebop down
I can’t hear my heart beat
Where’s that fatback chord I found?

The Dan’s unique twist on mid-’70s funk, “Monkey” features some down-and-dirty riffs by an all-star horn section led by saxophone legend Plas Johnson, who’s best known for his solo on Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme.”

As the final track on Pretzel Logic, this song marks the end of the ride for the original “band” version of Steely Dan (although Jim Hodder was still officially the group’s drummer, he doesn’t play a single lick on this album; he does, however, contribute backing vocals to “Parker’s Band”). Skunk Baxter would head off to the Doobie Brothers; the Dan’s other regular guitarist, Denny Dias, would continue as a session player all the way through Aja.

43. “Green Earrings” (The Royal Scam)
Greek medallion
Sparkles when you smile
Sorry, angel
I get hungry like a child

If the white-hot drumming of Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on this track doesn’t get your attention, check your pulse. Elliott Randall spikes some searing guitar work throughout, and Denny Dias slides in for a sweet solo midway through. This is another song I feel as though I’m ranking much too low, but only because so much greatness has to get crammed in ahead of it.

42. “Razor Boy” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Will you still have a song to sing
When the razor boy comes
And takes your fancy things away?

“Razor Boy” is noteworthy in the Steely Dan catalog mostly for the presence of veteran jazz player Ray Brown on string bass. By the early 1970s, one didn’t hear a lot of upright bass on rock records outside of what remained of rockabilly. But Brown’s the perfect fit on this jazzy number that hinted at the musical direction Becker and Fagen would fully embrace by the time of Aja. Things would only get jazzier from here.

I still wish the razor boy would keep his grubby mitts off my stuff.

41. “Your Gold Teeth II” (Katy Lied)
Who are these children
Who scheme and run wild
Who speak with their wings
And the way that they smile

Speaking of jazzy, Donald and Walter’s predilection for the genre is writ large all over this one. I’ve never quite understood why this song is labeled as a “sequel” to “Your Gold Teeth” from the band’s second album; aside from the lone repeated lyrical hook, the two tracks could hardly be more different. Denny Dias, who just might be the real unsung hero of the Dan’s classic period, delivers yet again with a simmering, shimmering guitar solo.

The Steely Dan 64 Project: Songs 56-49

February 17, 2020

[NOTE: The Steely Dan 64 Project represents my ranking, in order of my personal preference, of the 64 songs released by Steely Dan during their “classic” period (1972-80). You’ll find a detailed introduction to the project, as well as the beginning of the ranking, HERE.

As stated elsewhere, your own perspective on how these songs compare to one another may — and most likely will — be different. That’s absolutely okay. There’s no right or wrong, just individual taste. What matters is celebrating the legacy of Donald Fagen, the late Walter Becker, and their host of collaborators, and the incredible music they created.]

56. “Throw Back the Little Ones” (Katy Lied)
Hot licks and rhetoric
Don’t count much for nothing

A jazzy little (no pun intended) number featuring another of the many spectacular guitar solos that Elliott Randall contributed to Steely Dan records over the years, starting with “Reelin’ In the Years.” Not one of my favorite Fagen vocals, but a decent tune overall.

55. “Fire In the Hole” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
A woman’s voice reminds me
To serve and not to speak
Am I myself, or just another freak?

Fagen doesn’t often get enough credit for the brilliance of his piano playing. He’s razor-sharp on this track. Nothing in popular music sounded quite like this in the early ’70s, except maybe Marvin Hamlisch’s Scott Joplin-tribute soundtrack to The Sting.

54. “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” (Pretzel Logic)

In compiling this ranking, I despaired of where to place “East St. Louis Toodle-oo.” At one point, I considered omitting it altogether. It’s an unusual item: the only instrumental number in the Steely Dan catalog, and the only track not written or co-written by Becker and Fagen. Composed by Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley in the 1920s, it exists only to showcase the boys’ affection for jazz — an affection that would morph into an obsession, starting with their next album — and, I suppose, to fill a bit of space on Pretzel Logic, which contains a number of short songs.

The unusual guitar work is fun — Becker’s talk-box and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s pedal steel make for interesting twists on the original arrangement’s muted trumpet and trombone, respectively — but I don’t know that it really adds much to the Dan legacy outside of a footnote. Well played, gents, but I can’t slot it any higher than this.

53. “My Rival” (Gaucho)
I was the whining stranger
A fool in love
With time to kill

I actually remember listening to “My Rival” for the first time and thinking, “That’s kind of a creepy song.” I didn’t know until decades later that Becker and Fagen had created this weird little number for the soundtrack of a horror film: Phobia, directed by the legendary John Huston. Knowing its origins explains the song’s gooseflesh-raising vibe, but doesn’t make me love it any better.

52. “Pearl of the Quarter” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
She loved the million dollar words I say
She loved the candy and the flowers that I bought her
She said she loved me and was on her way
Singing “Voulez-vous”

I’m already on record [see “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” at #62] as not being enamored with the Dan’s occasional dabbling in the countrified end of the musical pool. Still, there’s something ineffably sweet about hearing Fagen sing a more-or-less straightforward love song… okay, he’s in love with a streetwalker here, but in love nevertheless. Skunk Baxter and his pedal steel guitar get an opportunity to shine.

51. “Only a Fool Would Say That” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
Unhand that gun, begone
There’s no one to fire upon

One of the brighter, bouncier tracks on the Dan’s debut album, “Fire” showcases some deft-fingered guitar by The Skunk, and a vocal by Fagen that actually sounds as though Donald was in a good mood that day. The fact that a song this cool checks in this far down in the rankings is testimony to just how much excellent stuff lies ahead.

50. “Third World Man” (Gaucho)
Smoky Sunday
He’s been mobilized since dawn —
Now he’s crouching on the lawn…

The final song of the Dan’s classic period is something of a ringer: an emergency fill-in for another, allegedly better number entitled “The Second Arrangement,” most of which was accidentally erased by a studio assistant. Becker and Fagen made several attempts to rerecord the lost track, but couldn’t recreate the magic to their satisfaction. Instead, they dusted off a piece they’d written for (but not used on) an earlier album, swapped out most of the lyrics, and gave it a new title. There’s some awesomely gritty, snarling guitar by Larry Carlton here, but “Third World Man” remains an odd fit against the ultra-smooth pop-jazz that makes up the rest of Gaucho.

49. “King of the World” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Show me where you are
You and I will spend this day
Driving in my car through the ruins of Santa Fe

Most of Steely Dan’s music has a timeless feel to it; songs that were recorded more than 40 years ago still sound fresh today. “King of the World” is an unfortunate exception to this rule. The electronic keyboards that feature so prominently here have “cheesy 1970s exploitation flick” stamped all over them. Which is too bad, because the post-apocalyptic storyline of the lyric is intriguing, and the rest of the band contributes some super-tight playing, drummer Jim Hodder in particular.

The Steely Dan 64 Project: Introduction and Songs 64-57

February 14, 2020

After months of listening, pondering, arranging and rearranging, my Steely Dan 64 Project is ready for prime time.

What is the Steely Dan 64 Project? So glad you asked. I will explain. Or at least, I will sum up.

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As many longtime readers know, the musical partnership Steely Dan — it’s not quite accurate to say “band,” at least not for most of the Dan’s history — holds a unique place in my consciousness. I’ve often remarked that Steely Dan got me through college, and that’s true. No other recording act spent as much time in my speakers during those critical years as did Donald Fagen, the late Walter Becker, and the ever-changing cast of superlative musicians they assembled to make a series of uniformly splendid albums.

There are many, many groups, bands, and solo artists whose work I adore. But the seven studio albums released by Steely Dan from 1972 through 1980 stand out for me in a special way. I wouldn’t claim that those seven records are the greatest ever. Music, like all art forms, is subjective — it’s a fool’s errand to make objective comparisons about anything so dependent on the individual tastes of the observer. And there are plenty of specific songs and performances that I treasure as much, if not in some cases more than, anything in the Dan’s catalog. Suffice it to say that these seven albums form a body of work that has resonated with me deeply for decades. Over the past few months, I’ve spent a fair amount of hours revisiting these records, and considering each component in a way that I never had in my 40-plus years of Dan fandom.

Which is where the Steely Dan 64 Project comes in.

The seven studio albums of Steely Dan’s prime period — beginning with 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill and ending with 1980’s Gaucho — comprise a total of 62 songs. During this same timeframe, the Dan released two additional tracks: one, a film soundtrack theme; the other a bonus track on a “Greatest Hits” package. These two songs bring the total to 64.

It’s my contention that none of those 64 songs sucks.

That’s a statement that I don’t believe can be made about many other popular music acts with discographies of similar size.

The Beatles were arguably the most important band of the rock era — without question I consider them so, and in my mind, there isn’t a close second. But you and I both can name some undeniably terrible songs the Fab Four released for public consumption. (Including at least a third of the White Album.) When I think of all of the other bands I particularly enjoy, every single one of them put out at least one truly embarrassing clunker. In most cases, several such clunkers.

It’s a credit to the notoriously anal-retentive Becker and Fagen that they never let a single stinker clutter up their published repertoire during their prime years. This is not to say that they weren’t capable of making a stinker; the first single released under the Steely Dan name, “Dallas,” is unabashed dreck. (Its B-side, “Sail the Waterway,” is marginally better… but only marginally.) But Walter and Donald were savvy enough never to allow that horror to deface one of their albums. (“Dallas” does appear on an early Japanese compilation, the content of which I suspect the boys never personally authorized.)

However, the fact that I find all 64 songs in the core Steely Dan repertoire worthwhile doesn’t mean that I love all of them equally. The Steely Dan 64 Project is my attempt to rank these songs in order of my personal preference, and to talk a bit about the reasons why each song lands where it does on my list.

I want to emphasize that this ranking is purely a subjective, individualized analysis. Your mileage will, and should, vary. I also want to note that my ordering makes no real attempt to be qualitative; the fact that one track occupies a higher slot on my list than another does not mean that the musicianship, songwriting, arranging, or production on either track is better or worse. It just means that I like the higher-ranked song better. Or at least, I did at the exact moment when I pronounced this list closed. If I rewrote the list again, no doubt things would move up or down. That’s how music works. It’s about how it connects with you in the moment.

Note also that this ranking does not include any of the songs from the Dan’s two later albums, Two Against Nature (released in 2000) and Everything Must Go (2003). Both albums are worthy additions to the Dan discography (the former being somewhat more worthy than the latter, in my opinion). I don’t, however, have the same long-term relationship with that material that I have with the classic-period recordings, so it’s tough for me to judge it on the same level. Therefore I didn’t try. (You should absolutely check out these two albums, though.)

Enough introduction. Over the next several posts, I’ll present my ranking of the Steely Dan 64. Think about where each song would rank on your personal chart. Again, we’ll disagree on the numbers — that’s totally cool. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s just me sharing what I think and feel about this music that has meant so much to me. What you think and feel is just as valid. Where I hope we agree is that it’s fun to revisit these legendary tracks, relive some memories, and reflect on the unparalled, uncompromising genius of Becker and Fagen.

So let’s begin with the bottom eight. (Since 64 is the square of eight, I’ve decided to break the ratings into eight-song groups. As we get closer to the top, the groups may get smaller.)

64. “Through With Buzz” (Pretzel Logic)
You know I’m cool, yes, I feel alright
‘Cept when I’m in my room and it’s late at night

Well, something had to be at the bottom of the list. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to be through with “Buzz” — at a hair over a minute and a half, it’s by far the shortest song in the Steely Dan catalog. It’s a bit of a throwaway; I wonder whether there was, at some point, more to the song than this, but maybe Becker and Fagen decided to strip it down to bare essentials. Still, it’s a great vocal by Fagen, and a rare use of strings on a Steely Dan record. (I think “FM” is the only other Dan track with violins.) One cultural note: Fagen’s tossed-off homophobic slur hasn’t aged well.

63. “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More” (Katy Lied)
Lucy still loves her Coke and rum
But she sits alone ’cause her daddy can’t come

The mystery of Daddy’s departure from the Big Apple remains unsolved. I suspect he’s doing hard time upstate.

62. “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
The whole of time we gain or lose
And power enough to choose

My antipathy for country music (an oxymoronic phrase if ever there was one) is well documented, and the instrumentation on “Brooklyn” veers ever so slightly too far in a country direction for my taste. There’s something weirdly dissonant about this Nashville-lite arrangement butted against the smooth, soulful vocal trio of Venetta Fields, Clydie King, and Sherlie Matthews. (That said, the pedal steel work by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is choice.) Like most Dan fans, I don’t really dig David Palmer on lead vocals, but I think he’s fine here. And no, I have no idea why Brooklyn owes anyone anything.

61. “Charlie Freak” (Pretzel Logic)
Poor man, he showed his hand
So righteous was his need
And me so wise, I bought his prize
For chicken feed

A solid song, tightly written and performed. Donald Fagen’s pulsing piano riff alone makes it worth the price of admission. For me, “Charlie Freak” ranks this low mostly because it’s dark, angsty, and depressing — the sordid tale of a youthful drug addict, who’s dead by the final verse. Granted, the Dan did a lot of material that’s not exactly cheerful or uplifting, but most of their more morose numbers are redeemed by an arch joke or a witty turn of phrase here or there. “Charlie Freak” is just sad.

Also, the title reminds me of “Charlie X,” one of my least favorite episodes of Star Trek — which is, coincidentally, also about a kid named Charlie who could be accurately described as a freak, and who also comes to a rather unfortunate (albeit not fatal) end. That mental connection probably doesn’t help me love this song any better. Sorry, Charlie.

60. “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
My poison’s named, you know my brand
So please make mine a double, Sam

Mentions my name and Jesus in the same phrase repeatedly, so it can’t be all bad.

59. “Rose Darling” (Katy Lied)
With only you and what I’ve found
We’ll wear the weary hours down

Steely Dan didn’t perform many unapologetic love songs. “Rose Darling” is about as close as they got. I hope Snake Mary enjoyed a good night’s sleep.

58. “With a Gun” (Pretzel Logic)
Did you pay the other man with the piece in your hand
And leave him lying in the rain?

High Noon, Becker/Fagen style. Side 2 of Pretzel Logic (for those of you who remember when albums had sides) includes several shorter selections that represent the Dan’s last genuine attempt at being an actual band that recorded radio-sized (that is, three minutes or less) pop-rock tunes. “With a Gun” is one such tune.

57. “Chain Lightning” (Katy Lied)
Don’t bother to understand
Don’t question the little man
Be part of the brotherhood
Yes, it’s chain lightning
It feels so good

The groove on this track is so laid-back that I’m surprised the record didn’t slide off the turntable. Rick Derringer contributes a tasty guitar solo.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks, Volume 16: End of the Decade Edition

November 28, 2019

As they say in the biz, better late than never.

It was never going to be “never,” but a variety of circumstances complicated my posting the annual Thanksgiving list in time for the holiday this year. But, for those of you who’ve been waiting with bated breath — or baited breath, if you had sushi for lunch — here we are, a few days past due but none the worse for wear.

For the benefit of any new readers: Every Thanksgiving since the inception of this little slice of the Internet way back in 20[mumble], I’ve devoted a post to expressing my gratitude for the many things and people who make my life worth living. Since my blessings far outstrip the stamina of my typing fingers, I developed the idea of an A to Z list, choosing one item for each letter of the alphabet. It’s a form of metonymy: the part stands for the whole. Or, in this instance, the 26 listed items stand for everything else for which I’m thankful this year.

As I now do separately from the list, I give thanks first and foremost for the people closest to me: for my wife, referred to herein as the Pirate Queen for reasons I’ll not bore you with here; for The Daughter, referred to herein as The Daughter for reasons that I would hope would be obvious; for The Son-In-Law and the four-legged Studio Assistant and The Daughter’s Grandma; and for the memory of KJ, my late first wife, taken from the planet far before her time. (Breast cancer screening: Do it.) I love you, each and every.

All that having been offered, here’s the 16th edition of my Thanksgiving list — the last such list of the 2010s.

This year, I pause to give gratitude for:

Audient iD14. After years of faithful service from my venerable USB audio interface, I decided to upgrade to this sturdy, compact little box. I love its clean sound and simple functionality. Most of all, I love its capacity for a second microphone input, which I’ve never been able to implement previously, and which doubles my studio recording capacity without muss or fuss.

Brazilian steakhouses. Who doesn’t love sitting at a table while one server after another slices off hunks of delicious grilled meat for one’s dining pleasure? (Well, I suppose you vegetarians, but you know that we carnivores are going to eat you anyway when the zombie apocalypse happens.) The Pirate Queen has promised to fete me at a nearby example on my upcoming birthday. And yes, I know that it’s called a churrascaria. But I have something else at “C,” which is…

The Casbah, my affectionate name for our old and now new-again home. We first moved into The Casbah back in the summer of 2014, only to leave it behind a year and a half later when we relocated to shorten the Pirate Queen’s commute. As happens in life, circumstances changed, and the Pirate Queen’s current employment made a return to The Casbah (which had become a rental property during the three years prior) more advantageous. With our tenants having moved on, we undertook an extensive renovation of the old homestead, and returned at the beginning of the summer, almost exactly five years after we moved in the first time. It’s nice to be home.

Duck buns. A local izakaya called Sasa serves them — duck confit with hoisin sauce on steamed bao. Think of those mediocre pork buns you get from your favorite Chinese takeout joint, amped up to the nth degree. The Pirate Queen describes them as “little pillows of heaven.” She’s not wrong.

Endgame — that’s Avengers: Endgame if you want to get all formal about it — the final chapter in the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Okay, technically Spider-Man: Far From Home was the final chapter, but that felt much more like a throwaway epilogue after Endgame.) This one had everything you’d want in the conclusion of a saga: shocking surprises, heroic quests, love lost and found again, tragic sacrifices. And, best of all, every hero in the MCU to date teaming up for the battle to end(game) all battles. The superhero-loving kid in me squeed. Martin Scorsese may not think it’s cinema, but it’s plenty cinematic enough for me.

FM (No Static At All) by Steely Dan. Back when I rode the airwaves, I frequently started my morning DJ shift with this number. Even now, when it comes on the radio, I can improvise an opening over the instrumental intro and hit the station ID a split-second before Donald Fagen’s vocal kicks in at 26 seconds. Incidentally, I’m working on a project in which I’m ranking all 64 of the songs on Steely Dan’s classic-period albums (Can’t Buy a Thrill through Gaucho, plus the two non-album tracks released during that time frame). I predict this one will land in my top 10.

Greta Thunberg. Powerful proof that one small voice can change the world.

Hope. In dark times like these, we need to find and cling to it more tightly than ever. If we give up hope, we give up, period.

Idris Elba. He could make a dramatic reading of the LL Bean catalog sound compelling. He makes some peculiar choices in projects at times — he appears to be one of those actors who just can’t say “No” to anything (I mean, Hobbs & Shaw? really?) — but whatever he’s in, it’s going to be worth watching when he (or even just his voice) is on screen. James Bond? Sure. Why not? I’d pay money to see that.

Jimmy G. I’m still not fully on the Garoppolo train, but results don’t lie. A 49ers team I thought would be sub-.500 this season is 10-2 at this writing. The guy’s doing something right.

The King Kam, because I’m not typing “the Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel” more than once. (Even there, I copied and pasted.) We spent a lovely few days at this fine downtown Kailua-Kona establishment on the Big Island of Hawaii in the spring. It’s centrally located, with a small, relatively secluded sandy beach (a rarity on the Big Island). The dining options are meh — except for the onsite location of Ululani’s Shave Ice, which is killer — but there’s plenty of excellent food within walking distance. Worth checking out if you’re staying in Kona.

Library science. The Daughter is currently studying for her master’s degree in this field, and she is thoroughly enjoying the process, hard work though it is. She has a passion for both learning and helping others, so I believe it’s a perfect fit for her.

Museum putty. When we created the new gallery space for comic art in our back hallway, I finally found the solution for keeping pieces from slipping within their frames. How did I ever collect art without this stuff?

Nissan Altima. The Pirate Queen finally replaced her aging Toyota coupe this fall, with a shiny new red metal machine. I’m glad that she has a trustworthy car that she enjoys driving.

Ocean Avenue Veterinary Hospital, taking good care of Studio Assistant Tazz since he joined our merry band. The doctors and technicians at OAVH have always been accommodating with our little guy, who suffers from stranger anxiety and is a challenging patient to handle. No matter how much fuss he makes, he’s always greeted with smiles on his next visit.

Paschall, Eric. The brightest light in a dull and dismal Golden State Warriors season. The Paschanimal, as TV commentator Kelenna Azubuike dubbed him, plays with a high-revving motor and surprising skill for a second-round draft pick. It’s early days yet, but he looks like a keeper.

Quarter-scale statues. When I acquired my Taarna from Sideshow Collectibles, I never thought I’d ever want another. But… even a Taarakian avenger needs friends. And thus over the past year, Diana, Kara, and Elektra showed up. I have to admit, they add presence to my studio. But I suspect they talk about me when I leave the room.

Repeat clients. A couple of years ago, I was privileged to voice the audio tour when world-renowned watchmakers Patek Philippe held their Grand Exhibition in New York. I was equally privileged that they hired me again to voice this year’s Grand Exhibition in Singapore — at least, the English-language version. It’s always life-affirming when people regard your work highly enough to ask you back.

Scene study. I made the conscious choice this year to focus more of my ongoing training on pure acting, as opposed to voiceover-specific workshops. I’ve had some encouraging feedback in my recent scene study classes, and I feel as though I’ve taken some major steps forward as an actor. Hopefully, that will translate into booking more work in the coming year. But even if it doesn’t, the growth is good for me. Old dog, new tricks.

Trivia Nationals. For each of the previous seven years, I’ve journeyed to Las Vegas in the blistering heat of summer for a weekend of trivia mayhem. This year, the previous event gave way to the new Trivia Nationals, which brought together quizzers from all over North America for a fun-filled, action-packed gala. I’ve already booked my ticket for next year’s gathering. Maybe I’ll see you there (hint hint, nudge nudge).

University Challenge. Speaking of quizzing, one of the highlights of my week is watching the latest installment of University Challenge, the venerable British quiz show that pits foursomes from various UK colleges against one another in a grand tournament of knowledge. This season, a young friend of mine is playing on one of the competing squads, and another is hoping to land on a team for next year’s run. And, as brilliant as the contestants are, it makes this old Jeopardy! champ feel just a bit perkier when he pulls out a fact that the kids don’t know.

Vistaprint. My favorite resource for everything from business cards to the custom-designed “No Soliciting” sign on The Casbah’s front gate. The Vistaprint folks never disappoint with the quality of their printing or materials, or with their budget-friendly pricing.

Windows. Part of the renovation at The Casbah involved replacing all of the original windows with new double-paned models that do an outstanding job of keeping out both the elements and outside noise (within limits, of course — there’s no cure for the landscaper’s leaf blower) and letting in the view. I get to sit at my desk daily and watch the birds and squirrels go about the business of foraging in the trees in our front courtyard. It’s good to be reminded there’s a world beyond the walls.

X-23. She’s the clone daughter of Wolverine, who inherited her dad’s retractable claws and healing factor. Not a bad gig if you can get it.

Yellow Productions is actually a YouTuber named Chris Raney, who presents travel videos he describes as “fun, informative, and entertaining.” Most of the time, his videos are just that. Part of what makes Chris’s videos enjoyable viewing is that they are clearly not the work of a “professional travel writer,” but just a nerdy guy who loves to travel the world and share helpful tips about the places he goes. Chris can be infuriating if you know the subject better than he does — his Hawaii videos drive me insane, because he consistently mispronounces Hawaiian place names, and gets details about local culture wrong — but he always maintains a cheerful approach and gives worthwhile information more often than not. His videos about Southern California (he’s a San Diego resident), Las Vegas, and East Asia (his wife, referred to as “OC Girl,” is of Asian heritage, and they travel to Asia more frequently than to other overseas locales) are particularly useful.

Zatarain’s. I cook from scratch most of the time, but I’m not above using prepackaged help in the kitchen now and again. Zatarain’s rice mixes, especially their red beans and rice and jambalaya varieties, produce tasty side dishes in far less time than it would take me to create them from ground zero. Throw in some sliced sausage, leftover turkey, or shrimp, and you’ve got a decent meal.

And finally — I say this every year, but it’s still and always true — I’m thankful for you, friend reader. May you and those you care for enjoy health and happiness in the 2020s.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks, Volume 15: Crystal Turkey Edition

November 22, 2018

As unlikely as it seems, this post marks the 15th anniversary of my yearly Thanksgiving Day blog entry. Given that crystal is the traditional gift for a 15th anniversary, I will attempt herein to be as transparent, sparkling, and multifaceted as possible.

Those of you (and you know who you are) who’ve kept up with these posts over the years know that I have many, many people and things in my life for which I am thankful. I don’t take that responsibility of gratitude lightly. I earnestly, honestly appreciate how blessed my life is.

When I roll over the side of the bed every morning, even when that effort comes accompanied by the creaks and crackles of advancing age, I am grateful that I have two feet to stand on, and legs that support the standing. I know there are millions of people in the world who can’t get out of bed and would give anything to do so. And, as I go about my day, I am thankful that I have a comfortable home, clean clothes, abundant food and water, work I enjoy, the entertainment of a companion animal, and the love of a life partner. I know there are millions of people who have few, or none, of these, and would sacrifice anything they do have to possess that which they do not. I am not better, or more deserving, than they. I am merely more fortunate. Again, I don’t take that for granted.

And especially when I find myself living in a state where entire communities have been consumed by disastrous wildfires over the past year-plus, robbing people of every material possession and a lifetime of treasured memories…

I take none of this for granted.

Because I have far more things to be thankful for than I can enumerate, on Thanksgiving Day it’s been my custom these past 15 years to focus my gratitude on a list of just 26 items, one for each letter of the alphabet. Some items on the list are trivial (indeed, some are literally that). Others are profound. All stand in the place of many, many others that I simply haven’t time in one day to name. It’s just my way of acknowledging how deeply moved in soul and spirit I am when I pause to consider how rich my life is, even in those countless moments when I feel poorly within.

With all that said, on Thanksgiving Day 2018, here are the things for which I’m giving thanks.

Air. In our part of the world, it’s easy to forget about air — we have it fresh and without limit… until an event like the fire that destroyed Paradise, California clouds the atmosphere with toxic fumes and ash for days on end, even for those of us living a couple hundred miles from the event. After breathing soot for two weeks, today’s clean air (courtesy of our first rains in months) gives us NorCal residents something extra special to celebrate.

Bob Almond. My comic art collection began in earnest almost simultaneously with these annual posts, 15 years ago. During that time, one artist’s work has come to be represented in my galleries far more frequently than any other — more than 50 times, at last count. It might be easy to miss that, however, because Bob Almond toils as an inker, an embellisher of other artists’ pencil drawings. Bob’s unique ability to meld his ink lines with a broad variety of styles — always enhancing, never imposing or interfering — gives me the confidence to keep putting projects in his capable hands, knowing that the art will always return to me better than when it left. And, as founder of the Inkwell Awards, Bob labors tirelessly to gain recognition and appreciation for other practitioners of his craft — artists whose work often goes unnoticed, but is indispensable to the art form we call comics.

Confetti. I play quite a few online trivia games (although fewer all the time, it seems, as some of the upstarts have gone or are going out of the picture). I have the most fun playing the Facebook-based Confetti every weeknight. Confetti’s distinction is that it allows one to play in concert with one’s Facebook friends, seeing their responses to each question in real time and benefiting from their collective wisdom. Assuming, of course, that one has smart friends. I just happen to be lucky that way.

Doctor Who. Until this season, I haven’t been a regular viewer of Doctor Who, the venerable BBC science fiction series, since the days of the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker in the 1970s. When the show was revived several years back, I sampled an episode or two of each new incarnation of the Doctor, but was never drawn back into steady attendance. Then came the Thirteenth Doctor, played with charm and spunk (and a goofy-to-American-ears Yorkshire accent) by Jodie Whittaker, the first female actor to be cast as the Time Lord. In the Doctor’s own phrase, “Brilliant!”

Egg foo young. Yes, I know, it’s not real Chinese cuisine. But sometimes, I just gotta have it. It’s probably the gravy.

Freddie Mercury. I have yet to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the recent biopic starring Rami Malek as the legendary front man of Queen. Part of my reluctance is the reviews. The greater part, though, is my fear that nothing could compare with the reality of Freddie, perhaps the most uniquely talented performer in rock history, and one whose music and memory means so much to me.

Garlic. Can’t cook without it. Okay, maybe breakfast. But not after that.

Hawaiian Airlines. Truly the friendliest airline in the skies. You’d be friendly too if every one of your round trips ended in Hawaii. At the Pirate Queen’s insistence, I got a new credit card this year that earns Hawaiian Airlines flying miles. Maybe one of these years I’ll earn enough miles to just stay.

Infinity War. Every time I think the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gone about as far as it can go, Kevin Feige and company find a whole new way to turn things up past 11. Coming in hot on the heels of Black Panther — quite possibly, the greatest superhero film ever made, and one that could have dominated this Thanksgiving list had I not decided not to be quite so obvious — Avengers: Infinity War raised the stakes and broke our hearts by taking our Panther (and several other Marvel headliners, including Spider-Man and Doctor Strange) away. The sequel can’t get here fast enough. (Also, Black Panther 2.)

Journalists. I’ve never practiced the trade — the closest I came was my years as an online film reviewer — but I trained at university as a journalist. I value the talent and commitment of those who tell the true stories within our world, and deliver the news even when those in power would undermine and even physically thwart them. Now more than ever, we need legitimate journalism, and we all need to support those outlets and individuals determined to publish the truth.

Kansas. This summer, the Pirate Queen and I spent a weekend in Central California centered around a concert by the classic rock band Kansas. This was the fourth time I’ve seen Kansas live — the first was on my 19th birthday, at the Cow Palace — but the first time in more than 20 years. I still love the music. Kansas is the only significant American band to focus largely on progressive rock for the majority of its career (yeah, I know, Styx — but they were only prog-ish, and at that, only sometimes). Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Maybe not… but who cares? All we are is dust in the wind.

Lutron. One of the many things I love about our little abode here at Pirates Cove is the auto-dimming LED light fixtures, manufactured by a company named Lutron about whom I know nothing. Great lights, though.

Marriage. In the words of a certain Impressive Clergyman, “Mawwiage is what bwings us togevvah today.” In May, The Daughter entered into vows with The Son-In-Law. It was a beautiful day, and they still seem totally happy together six months later. I’m glad she found someone special to share her heart and her life with (and he does indeed seem like a great guy). I’m glad that the Pirate Queen and I found each other, too. Ain’t love grand?

Notability. An essential tool in my everyday working life — I import all of my scripts into it, where I can annotate and mark them up as I will. I also use it for note-taking in workshops and sessions, and for general brainstorming. If you can use a high-quality document markup / notation tool with a wealth of functionality, I highly recommend Notability. (Not a paid endorsement. Just a satisfied customer.)

Outrigger Reef Waikiki. We stayed here on this year’s trip to Oahu, and it immediately became our new favorite hotel on the island. Centrally located on Waikiki Beach, the Outrigger Reef offered a ton of features that we liked: unmatched location, warm hospitality that personifies aloha, first-rate beach access, a reliable breakfast venue, super-convenient layout that minimizes walking (something that can’t be said of many large resort hotels), great pool, live music nightly, and a Starbucks. I almost hate to mention it here, because now you people will fill it up the next time we want to stay there.

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco has presented a couple of exhibitions in recent years featuring the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an association of 19th-century British artists and writers. This year’s show afforded the opportunity to see a number of stunning paintings by the Brotherhood’s leading lights: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. I’m always impressed by art that keeps me thinking about it for days after I’ve seen it. The Pre-Raphaelites and their acolytes accomplish that.

Quizmasters. Having written a few quizzes for LearnedLeague and elsewhere, and played thousands more, I’m acutely aware of how difficult it is to compose top-shelf trivia questions and answers. I’m in awe of people — including LearnedLeague Commissioner Thorsten A. Integrity and newly inducted Trivia Hall of Fame member Paul Paquet — who manage to do it consistently over long periods of time.

Radio. As some of you know, I was a radio disc jockey in a previous life. Thanks in part to the SiriusXM subscription that came with our new Subaru Forester, I’ve been listening to more radio of late. It’s a format that I hope never goes away.

Stan Lee. Some idolized Marvel Comics writer/editor/publisher “Stan the Man” and gave him perhaps more credit than he deserved. Others in their zeal to counteract Stan’s penchant for self-aggrandizement were perhaps too quick to denigrate his contributions. All I know is this: Stan Lee co-created (we can disagree as to what percentage) several of the most iconic characters and stories of my lifetime, including some that had a tremendous impact on my youth and beyond. I can’t say this about many people whom I never met, but I would be a dramatically different person today were it not for Stan Lee. Rest in peace, and excelsior.

Taarna. I don’t like to talk myself up, but for some years, I was among the primary resources online for information about the 1981 animated science fiction anthology film Heavy Metal. I compiled and maintained the Squidoo lens spotlighting the movie, contributed significantly to its Wikipedia entry, and wrote material about the film for several (mostly now defunct) websites. My art collection reflects my obsession, with its gallery of commissioned artworks featuring Taarna, the lead character in Heavy Metal’s concluding segment and star of its iconic poster. When Sideshow Collectibles announced early this year that they were releasing a statue of Taarna, I knew I had to own one, even though I’m not a statue collector. The Taarakian defender now upholds The Pact from a shelf in my office/studio.

Ukulele. I decided a while back that I wanted to learn to play the ukulele. This decision did not come without trepidation — I took years of guitar lessons as a youngster and never got very good at playing the guitar. (Which is a charitable way of saying that I totally sucked at playing the guitar.) I’ll probably never be very good at playing the ukulele either. But even my clumsy fretting and strumming brings me joy. That’s something, yes?

Victoria Coren Mitchell. One of the world’s best female poker players, and the presenter of one of my favorite quiz shows, Only Connect. Is there anything she can’t do?

Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. I fell in love with the Tiki Room on my first visit to Disneyland, way back in 19[mumble][mumble]. When I visited with the Pirate Queen in February of this year, I found my love unabated. It’s cheesy yet classic, dated yet timeless, silly yet charming. The performances by the lead voice actors (Wally Boag, Thurl Ravenscroft, Fulton Burley, and Ernie Newton) remain engaging, despite their broad (some might say stereotypical, and some might not be wrong) accents. There’s always at least one Audio-Animatronic character that doesn’t function quite perfectly. And yet, the moment the Tiki Room show concludes, I want to queue up again for another round. It’s one of my favorite childhood memories. Also, Dole Whip.

Xenon. It’s the noble gas used most frequently in film projection lamps. When you go to the movie theater and look at the brightly lit screen, you’re seeing xenon at work.

Yacht Rock. It’s not just a musical genre — it’s a way of life. The smooth, studio-crafted, jazz-inflected sounds of such late-’70s/early-’80s acts as Steely Dan, Toto, Kenny Loggins, Christopher Cross, Al Jarreau, and the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers are my jam. (One of my jams, anyway.) Please don’t confuse true Yacht Rock with that stuff that gets played on the SiriusXM channel of the same name — most of it’s Nyacht Rock. (Hint: Jimmy Buffett is Nyacht Yacht Rock.) For the real deal, check out the pioneering 2005 web video series Yacht Rock, and Beyond Yacht Rock, the subsequent podcast hosted by connoisseurs JD Ryznar, Dave Lyons, Hunter Stair, and “Hollywood” Steve Huey.

Ziploc bags. I don’t know who invented them, or how that individual came up with the technology. But how did we ever live without them? The ones with the slider sealing mechanism? Pure engineering genius.

And as always, friend reader, I’m grateful for you. Thanks for stopping by on yet another Thanksgiving. I hope you’ve found much to be thankful for today. If you have, share some with someone who has a little less.

Peace.

Comic Art Friday: It’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey

August 17, 2018

Moonstone_Darna_Santamaria

If you’re a regular here, you know that I grew up as a military brat. My adoptive father served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, and I was around for the last 15 of those years. As a result, I spent a fair chunk of my childhood living on islands — specifically Oahu, Crete (that’s Greece, but you knew that), and Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines.

During our two-year stay in the latter island nation, I became acquainted with Darna, who is to Filipino komiks what Wonder Woman is to the American genre. I didn’t understand much Tagalog, but even without knowing the language, I could appreciate the character. Darna is a young girl named Narda who swallows a magical white stone and transforms into a superpowered woman warrior. (And to answer the question I know you’re thinking: She regurgitates the stone when she wants to change back into her normal self. It’s like Mary Marvel or Isis, only kind of gross.)

Since her debut in 1950, Darna has enjoyed a significant presence in Filipino pop culture even beyond komiks, starring in numerous films and TV programs. When we lived in the Philippines in the mid-1970s, Darna was being portrayed on screen by a popular actress named Vilma Santos. Posters and pictures of Vilma in her Darna costume were everywhere. Vilma became so well-known that she parlayed her show business success into a prominent career in politics.

Darna_Vilma

I’ve long wanted to feature Darna in a Common Elements scenario, and was fortunate to commission a talented Filipino artist, Michael Sta. Maria, to do the job. Michael pairs Darna here with Dr. Karla Sofen, a.k.a. Moonstone, another character who obtains her superpowers from a rock… albeit with less swallowing and upchucking. Which, you know, is probably a good thing.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: Death Race Infinity

July 27, 2018

Black Racer and Silver Surfer, pencils by Keith Pollard, inks by Bob Almond

It’s fair to say that no single individual had a greater impact on the medium of comics — specifically, that species of fantasy comics into which superheroes and their related subgenres fall — than Jack Kirby.

As an artist and storyteller, Kirby created the foundation for what we would today call the Marvel Universe. Most of the classic Marvel heroes from the Silver Age — including the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, the original X-Men, Iron Man, Black Panther, Silver Surfer, Ant-Man, and the Wasp, as well as the Avengers and Inhumans — were all created or co-created by Kirby. (Not to mention Captain America, whom Kirby co-created with Joe Simon in 1940 and revived at Marvel in 1964.)

After a falling-out with Stan Lee and Marvel in the early 1970s, Kirby moved on to DC Comics and created a whole raft of new characters in what came to be known as the Fourth World saga. Prominent among these were Mister Miracle, the Forever People, and the New Gods.

I could go on naming characters Kirby dreamed up, but we’d be here all day. The man was that prolific.

Today’s featured artwork spotlights two Kirby creations who are, in a way, different spins on the same general concept. On the right, we have the Silver Surfer, whom Kirby introduced as a minor character in a 1966 Fantastic Four story, but became — due to Stan Lee’s enthusiasm (for years, he refused to allow other writers to use the Surfer in their stories) — one of the icons of classic Marvel. On the left is the Black Racer, who zoomed onto the scene in New Gods #3 (July 1971).

The Surfer began his career as the herald of the planet-eating space giant Galactus; the Racer is the avatar of Death in the Fourth World tales. And, yes, both guys fly through space on what looks like sporting equipment. (I never understood why the Black Racer needed ski poles to steer. In space, what would he dig them into? But I’m not going to argue with The King.)

Black Racer and Silver Surfer, pencils by Keith Pollard

The base image here was penciled by Keith Pollard, one of the finest (and in my opinion, most tragically underappreciated) artists of Marvel’s Bronze Age (the 1970s and early 1980s). Inking superstar Bob Almond took Pollard’s pencil sketch and embellished it to a whole other level, adding a gorgeous deep-space background in addition to enhancing the characters themselves.

About Keith Pollard: During his career with Marvel, he proved himself a workhorse of titanic proportions. Pollard drew lengthy runs on Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four (twice), and Thor — for a time, he was working on all three titles simultaneously — as well as penciling issues of numerous other titles. Frankly, I don’t know how the man slept or ate during those years. Perhaps he didn’t.

In the early 1990s, Pollard penciled (with Joe Rubinstein inking) dozens of character model sheets for the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Master Edition. I own a couple of these, having purchased them from Keith via his art representative more than a decade ago.

Misty Knight model sheet, pencils by Keith Pollard, inks by Joe Rubinstein

Here’s the Misty Knight page. If you’ve watched Luke Cage on Netflix — and if you haven’t, what are you sitting here for? you have two whole seasons to catch up on! — you know all about this hard-hitting police detective who acquires a bionic arm.

Battlestar model sheet, pencils by Keith Pollard, inks by Joe Rubinstein

And this is the profile of Battlestar, who was Captain America’s partner for a short while in the late ’80s. Lemar Hoskins began his career as the newest iteration of Bucky (a sidekick role originally assumed by James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, now better known as the Winter Soldier). When legendary writer Dwayne McDuffie pointed out to Cap scribe Mark Gruenwald that the name “Bucky” took on problematic connotations when applied to an African American man, Gruenwald took a suggestion from artist Kieron Dwyer and renamed the character Battlestar.

Back to the Silver Surfer for just a moment. If you love great comic art — of course you do, otherwise you wouldn’t have read this far — you owe it to yourself to check out the two-part Silver Surfer: Parable, a 1988 collaboration between Stan Lee and the iconic French artist Jean Girard, a.k.a. Moebius. The story is classic Lee, and Moebius’s visuals combine beauty, grandeur, and emotion like no other.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: Can’t touch this

July 13, 2018

I’m just going to put this out there:

I don’t think the Human Bomb gets enough love.

Rogue_HumanBomb_Derenick

Sure, there are many factors that contribute to the Human Bomb’s unfortunate situation.

  • He’s got a dorky name.
  • He wears what might be the least sexy costume in the history of superheroes.
  • He hearkens back to comics’ Golden Age, when heroes often had gimmicky, poorly thought-out superpowers — like those of the Human Bomb.
  • He was created by a second-rank publisher that went out of business 60 years ago (Quality Comics, also the original home of such characters as Plastic Man, Blackhawk, and Phantom Lady), and has been used only sporadically by the company that now owns his rights (DC Comics).
  • In the modern world, the term “human bomb” conjures up unpleasant associations with terrorist violence.
  • For a while during his original run, the Bomb had a comedic sidekick named Hustace Throckmorton, who made things explode with his bare feet. I kid you not.

Despite all of the above, I always thought the Human Bomb was kind of awesome. After all, who hasn’t fantasized about blowing up everything you touch?

Okay, maybe that was just me.

Anyway, here’s the Bomb’s deal. Roy Lincoln was a scientist who created, alongside his father, the world’s most powerful explosive. To keep the family brainchild out of the hands of Nazis, Roy swallowed the chemical — like you would — and as a result, developed the ability (or incurred the curse, depending on your point of view) of causing everything he touched to explode.

To keep from bursting his environment into smithereens, Roy had to live inside a cumbersome suit made from a special material that prevented his skin from accidental contact with things he didn’t wish to destroy (presumably, most everything). He would remove his gloves when he wanted to lay the smack down with his potent barehanded touch.

It’s easy to see the limitations of a character like the Human Bomb. For one thing, you can’t depict him outside of his costume very often, so he’s not terribly relatable — aside from his eyes, visible through the window in his helmet, what does his face even look like? Plus, it’s difficult to have normal human interactions and relationships when everything (and everyone) you come into contact with detonates like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

These very limitations, however, make the Human Bomb one of comics’ most tragically heroic figures — a man doomed to permanent isolation who finds a way to adapt his horrific personal circumstances to the benefit of others.

I can dig a guy like that.

I don’t know whether longtime X-Men guru Chris Claremont had the Human Bomb in mind when he conceived Rogue back in 1981, but the parallel is undeniable. Like Roy Lincoln, Rogue (who still doesn’t have a full name after all these years; we’ve been told since 2004 that her given name is Anna Marie, but her surname remains a mystery) is forced to cover her body to shield the world from her mutant power — she drains the life force from anyone with whom she makes skin-to-skin contact.

Of course, Rogue being an attractive woman and this being the comics universe, she manages to cover herself usually in clothes far more form-fitting and face-revealing than the Human Bomb’s containment suit.

In recent times, Rogue has either developed some degree of control over her powers or found an effective workaround, given that she’s enjoyed a handful of romantic relationships (most notably with Johnny Storm, better known as the Human Torch of Fantastic Four fame, and her X-Men teammate Gambit, whom she recently married).

If only she could have hooked up with Roy Lincoln.

That would have been — wait for it — the bomb.

Sincere thanks to Tom Derenick, who created today’s featured Common Elements artwork. Tom’s classic style represents everything I love about comic art — it’s clear, easily readable, packed with power and crisp in detail. If I were asked to identify an example of a contemporary comics artist whose approach would have been equally at home in the Silver or Bronze Ages, yet is totally fresh and relevant today, Tom’s art would be one of my first stops.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: Between rock and a hard place

July 6, 2018

In my previous Comic Art Friday post about this year’s Silicon Valley Comic Con, I noted that artist Ryan Sook had taken ill during the show and was unable to start the Common Elements commission that he and I had discussed. I also mentioned that I hoped to approach Ryan with the same request at a future convention.

As luck would have it, Ryan was in attendance at San Francisco Comic Con (which is now being staged in Oakland, while retaining the previous name — even though “Golden State Comic Con” is not only available, but comes with reflected cachet) in June. He immediately recalled the project we had talked about previously, and quickly set to work creating it.

You can see for yourself that the end result was well worth the wait.

Tesla Strong and Valda the Iron Maiden, pencils and inks by Ryan Sook

While I always enjoy seeing favorite heroes appear in Common Elements scenarios, some of my favorite pieces in the series involve less prominent characters. Here, Ryan Sook brings together Tesla Strong, the daughter of Alan Moore’s science hero Tom Strong, and Valda the Iron Maiden, the companion of Arak, Son of Thunder.

Okay, so, a little background may help.

A pastiche of pre-superhero pulp characters such as Doc Savage and Craig Kennedy, Tom Strong grew up on the island of Attabar Teru, where he was raised to be the embodiment of human physical and mental perfection. Tom and his wife Dhalua, princess of Attabar Teru, have a daughter, Tesla, named for the famed inventor. Thanks to their partaking of the root of the mysterious Goloka plant, Tom and his family age extremely slowly. Tesla, although in her 60s during the time period in which most of the Tom Strong stories are set, still possesses the appearance and attitudes of a teenager. (Similarly, Tom and Dhalua are both well over a century old, but look as though they’re forty-something.) In addition to participating in a number of her father’s adventures, Tesla also starred in her own one-shot book, The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong.

Tesla Strong, pencils, inks, and markers by comics artist Phil Noto

Valda the Iron Maiden was a knight in the service of Charlemagne (and may also have been his daughter) before meeting the Native American hero Arak. Together, they set off on a series of fantastical adventures. Valda and Arak constantly ran afoul of sorcerers and their minions as they battled their way across medieval Europe. Written by Roy Thomas (who was instrumental in bringing Conan to comics) and drawn by Ernie Colon and later by Tony DeZuniga, Arak, Son of Thunder managed to avoid most of the embarrassing tropes assigned to fictional Native American characters, while offering a unique spin on the sword-and-sorcery genre. If you like that sort of thing, Arak is likely to be the sort of thing you like. Check out some back issues in your local comic shop’s discount bin.

Arak and Valda, pencils and inks by Tony DeZuniga

If you’re puzzling over the common element between these two stalwart heroines, both share their names — parts of their names, anyway — with hard rock bands: Tesla and Iron Maiden. I’ve never seen Iron Maiden perform live (they’re not my cup of tea, really), but I’ve experienced Tesla a couple of times, most recently six years ago when they opened for Scorpions. You can read my review of that concert, if you’re inclined.

TeslaBanner

One of the many qualities I appreciate in Ryan Sook’s art is the deftness with which he conveys so much with a few perfectly placed lines. In today’s featured piece, I’m especially pleased with the treatment that Ryan gave Tesla’s hair, and the way her features delicately but clearly denote her biracial heritage. Too often, comic artists draw women of color in exactly the same manner that they draw Caucasian female characters. How many depictions of, say, Storm (to cite one frequently egregious example) have you seen where, if you were looking only at the pencil and ink linework, you’d never know that she’s of African descent?

(Then again, how many comic artists are guilty of drawing nearly all their female characters, regardless of ethnicity, with the exact same facial features? You know who you are.)

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.