Archive - March 2003
March 29th, 2003

If you consider yourself a student of satire, a connoisseur of caricature, a patron of parody, and yet NOT find yourself interested in Mark Evanier's illuminating tome, "MAD Art", well then, your must be CRAZY!


CRACKED, even!!!

(And if you find my cute little intro to be sort of EH, imagine how much cleverer I would've come off if I could've smoothly added "NATIONAL LAMPOON" to that litany of knutty knockoffs, but of course, we all know that way leads...FROM HERE TO INSANITY!!...)

If you've ever read MAD magazine--and truthfully, who amongst us hasn't?-- at one time or another you've undoubtedly found yourself wondering, "WHAT kind of nutty people draw this stuff, and WHERE the heck do they find them??" Along with the chicken versus the egg, perhaps one--or two--of mankind's most puzzling questions!!

Well, good news, bunkie! They're answered at last, and answered with authority, panache, and more than a generous dollop of yocks!! Mark Evanier is a highly knowledgeable individual (at least when it comes to comic art topics--I don't think I'd have him top a list on my speed dial when it came to matters of advanced thermonuclear physics--but hey, I could be wrong...) and possesses the gift of breezily imparting information in such a painless manner that it allows the reader to both laugh AND learn simultaneously!! And who knows--maybe if he DID take a shot at penning that physics text, we'd have more thermonuclear scientists in our midst and less cartoonists!?! But--that probably wouldn't be a GOOD thing, would it? Uh uh. The world needs MAD-- the world DOESN'T necessarily need any additional MAD scientists!! The so-called "Usual Gang of Idiots"--THIS is their story! And Mark tells this far-flung tale to the best of his authoritative ability, because, y'know, after a half century, there've sure been an awful LOT of idiots!?!

The approach decided upon is to write short pieces about all the magazine's major artistic contributors (with the entirely valid point that a similar survey of MAD writers begs to be documented being made several times for emphasis), divided into alphabetical groupings of contributors from era to era (though, rightfully, "Kurtzman" trumps "Davis"). First up are the comic book guys, followed by a section devoted to the initial new hires as the switch was made to the black and white magazine format. The half dozen or so fellas who somehow managed to sneak their way into the closed door confines of MAD during the sixties and early seventies are next to be spotlighted, with the transitional new blood from the eighties following. After that, it's the massive artistic infestation of recent years that's examined, with a catch-all chapter devoted to many--but not all--the cartoonists that've put in cameo appearances over MAD's entire run. Interspersed amongst this chronology of comedic cartoonists are more general chapters cleverly and clearly detailing the magazine's history, how artists are chosen to appear in MAD, how an article is conceived, how an issue of MAD magazine is ultimately assembled, and--in a piece I found particularly fascinating--how photographer Irving Schild and other lens clickers staged and captured the highly effective faux ads dreamt up by the writers--did I mention that the writers deserve their own book?-- that give this satirical enterprise even more of a power packed punch!!

As latter day artist--and current Art Director-- Sam Viviano so aptly puts it in answering the oft asked question, "When was MAD at it's best?" MAD was at it's best during whatever time period the gentle reader first picked it up. For me, that would've been late 1963, a full decade into it's run, though through the magic of various reprint collections and the pile of back issues I was able to scrounge up, I managed to acquaint myself with most of the highlights from the initial ten years. I was quite the devotee there for a while, though by the time the seventies rolled around, I was pretty much picking up the magazine on autopilot. When the NATIONAL LAMPOON arrived with it's, ahem, racier material, well, THIS then-teen-age boy quickly and unapologetically switched allegiances!! But I've since come to recognize the immense contribution MAD made to our culture, popular and otherwise, even if I've only sporadically purchased subsequent issues over the ensuing years. Ironically, while it was a creeping sameness brought to the material by a predictably restricted group of contributors that, in part, drove me away, it's those same individuals whose background stories most interested me in Evanier's expansive overview!?! Because, you know, MAD really WAS at it's best in '64 and '65--trust me...

With limited space Mark manages to capture the essence of each unique MADman--the inventiveness of Al Jaffe, the brilliant but tragically doomed career of Wally Wood, Mort Drucker's development into--aside from perhaps the late Al Hirschfield--the world's foremost caricaturist, the intensive labor Don Martin poured into efforts to effortlessly appear to be MAD's Maddest artist, the complicated procedures Antonio Prohias would go through to produce his classic "Spy vs. Spy" feature, the oft-told tales of the speed of an Aragones and the pranks of an Elder--they're all here, succinctly delivered in all their glory. Even some of my lesser favorites from that prime period--Bob Clarke, Jack Rickard, and Paul Coker, Jr. to name three-- are afforded glowing write-ups, inducing me to reassess some of my age-old opinions and reach the conclusion that, yes, these guys ARE good--funny, even!! However, no amount of fancy jabber's ever gonna convince me George Woodbridge was working for the right publication! Talented, clearly. Humorous? Not nearly. And in fairness to the long (long Long LONG) time MAD mainstay, he even admits to feeling a bit miscast in his interview with the book's author, though Mark politely begs to differ with him (hey Mark--don't argue! Even he knows the score!!)

And then there are the "new" guys--y'know, the fellas who came aboard sometime after Gerry Ford freely roamed the Oval Office?? I have very little emotional attachment to this mass of MADmen, admittedly, but some clearly stick out--gagster John Caldwell, family-runner up James Warhola, cartooning throwback Bill Wray, Drew Friedman, perhaps the universe's THIRD most unique caricaturist, and "Duck" Edwing, MAD's OTHER Don-- being amongst the most prominent in my mind. Perhaps due to my unfamiliarity with many of the folks being showcased in the latter portions of this all encompassing tome, or maybe because most don't have the mileage their precursors have, several of their background stories come across as a bit, well, perfunctory. Boy reads MAD, boy applies to MAD, boy gets turned down by MAD, boy works for MAD's competitors, boy applies to MAD again, boy is accepted finally by MAD, boy, is boy happy!--the end. (…And in at least a few cases, you could substitute "girl" into that little archetypical tale--but not many.) I wouldn't call this a flaw in the writing per se--Mark does the best with what's he's got, and let's face it--not everybody was created equally interesting! Though, frankly, while I must commend each included artisan on their obvious abilities, not all their talents are equally enticing. Personal taste definitely favors some of these "rookie" stylists' work over that of others. Which brings me back to the title of our item under review today, "MAD Art"--just what ABOUT the art, anyway?...

As a platform to spotlight the many fine artists found in MAD's back pages, I'm afraid it's a mixed bag. While some of the larger blow-ups of panel details work spectacularly--the Jack Davis boxing illustration being a prime example--and the ongoing Basil Wolverton chapter title art makes for a pleasantly consistent motif, too much of the intended-magazine sized pages are shrunk down to at least a third their proper size, losing their effectiveness because of it (not to mention their humor, as most bits are printed incomplete). The layout, simply put, is a bit of a hodge-podge. Admittedly, you get to sample a smorgasbord of styles, but just like dining at a buffet isn't always the best way to enjoy a meal, this isn't the optimum way to relish the art of MAD. Towards that end, I found myself motivated to pull out the series of fine "MAD About The Fifties", "MAD About The Sixties", "MAD About The Seventies" and "MAD About The Eighties" volumes to better appreciate all that I had just read about. Which was okay with me. I'm not above cross-referencing my entertainment sources!! So, okay, maybe "MAD Art's" not going to win any coveted design awards from the Society of Guys Who Dole Out Coveted Design Awards, but it'll suffice, believe you me. Because, despite the title, this is one book you're buying for the words more than you are the pictures. Go into it with that in mind and you won't be disappointed.

Quibbles? Oh, sure, I've got a few. In the big Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Kurtzman wrap-up, our author attempts to list virtually every person who put pen to paper for MAD, craftily leaving himself an out by appending " and dozens more" to his survey to fend off complaints of neglect, a ploy that won't keep ME from whining about the shocking omission of the great Russ Heath, the long-time comics artist who--as described in pretty much his very own words--traced over Harvey's detailed layout's for the MAD comics take on Jack Cole's stretchable sleuth, "Plastic Sam". Tell me it was the editors, Mark--you couldn't have forgotten THAT one, could you? And maybe we can blame those self-same editors for the skewed look at the career path of John Severin. After leaving the MAD color comic, he's said to have drawn humor stories for several of MAD's competitors. Curiously, while in the latter portion of the book, several younger cartoonists are said to have graduated from CRACKED (and the like) up into the lofty realm of MAD, but in this one case where the trajectory went in the OPPOSITE direction, no names were given and implications were such that one could easily believe that Severin was but a casual contributor to the suspiciously unnamed CRACKED, rather than the artistic backbone of that enterprise, racking up as impressive a string of assignments in his new found home as any first generation MADmagman ever did!! Or would MAD rather not talk too much about the one that got away, I wonder?

(And as for that plural attached to the "MAD competitors" reference, well, at first I couldn't figure out what OTHER publication besides CRACKED Mark may've been referring to--then suddenly it hit me--WHAT THE?! No, that wasn't my reaction, that was the title of a Marvel Comics parody mag that came out in the eighties that housed Big John's work on at least one occasion. I oughta know, too-- after all, I WROTE the story he illustrated!?! D'oh--a Homer Simpson moment!! Now that it's all come flooding back to me, I thought I'd share this glorious little moment in my career with you folks, so if you click here, you can first read the back story to the world's only Severin-Hembeck collaboration, a nifty Nick Fury parody! After that, you lucky, lucky people, avail yourselves of my initial--but oh-so-tight--layouts, and finally on to the pierce de brosnen, the story as proudly published!! It ain't MAD, but if I must say so myself--and yes, I must-- it ain't bad!!)

In conclusion, the answer is affirmative--you need "MAD Art" by Mark Evanier, Watson-Guptill Publications, $24.95 (Cheap!) Run down to your local bookstore and scarf up a copy, or better yet, click on over to Mark's POVOnline website and buy it through one of several of the larger online booksellers stationed there. If you do it that way, said booksellers will toss Mark a few shekels for each and every sale, and I think we'd all agree, the more money an author can amass from his own often thankless task, the better, right?

Mark Evanier's "MAD Art", despite a few small caveats--and I don't mean Dick--is a very satisfying dissection of its subject. Fine wordsmith that he is, though, I'm reasonably certain Mark isn't a bit flustered by what amounts to only a few minor quibbles. After all, "What? M.E. Worry?"...

March 25th, 2003

During my elementary school years, the custom was for each class--two each of Kindergarten through sixth grade--to take turns putting on little theatrical productions for the amusement and/or entertainment of fellow students, teachers, and, of course, parents. Generally, this meant mounting a re-enactment of a fairy tale like "Hansel and Gretel", "Robin Hood', or perhaps some sort of a musical review. Then came the fifth grade...

We were lucky enough be assigned a brand new teacher, one William B. Erskine, who truly knew how to relate to kids. Beyond this rare talent, he had some downright progressive ideas about our class's obligatory moment before the footlights. No tired tale from the book of the Brothers Grimm for us! Uh uh--we'd do something original, something topical, something that was based on what was happening right NOW!! Barely ten years old, and suddenly the group of us were rehearsing for a political satire review!! "That Was The Week That Was" had NOTHING on our bunch, lemme tell ya!! We had us a Castro, a Kruschev, and of course, a JFK. Our class was scheduled to present our gentle little poke in the ribs of authority during early December. The year was 1963. We never had an opening night. You might say we closed out of town--WAY out of town...

I was reminded of this unfortunate set of cross-circumstances last night when I was reading about Vaughn Meader in the latest issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, #702,March 28th edition (the one with the crew from "American Idol" portrayed ala "The Brady Bunch" on the cover). Considering the source, at nine pages, it's a long and surprisingly in-depth article, far more so than I would've ever expected. I recommend it to anybody who's curious about one of the most tragically unique success stories in the history of modern celebrity-hood. If you recognized the name right off, you're probably already interested. And if you didn't...

In the early 1960s, Vaughn Meader was a young nightclub entertainer, singing his own material while accompanying himself on the piano in small New York City bistros. Somewhere along the line, he began to add an impression of the nation's hugely popular young chief executive, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, to his act, where it soon became the evening's wildly successful centerpiece. Not long after, he hooked up with a pair of record producers/writers, hired by them to play the lead role on their groundbreaking satirical LP, "The First Family". Though there had been a certain amount of difficulty getting the unprecedented recording released, once it WAS!!... Hoo boy!! It sold more than a million copies in two short weeks--the fastest selling disc ever up to that point--going on to amass sales of 7.5 million, ultimately winning the Album of the Year Grammy. This was one overnight star who made it out of the shoot practically before the rooster crowed!! Meader was suddenly, in the words of writer Tim Carvell's title headline, "The Second Most Famous Man In America". The good times began for the 27-year-old impressionist in October of 1962. Do I really have to spell out when it ended?...

Thirteen months. Then, for all intents and purposes, his career--along with our fifth grade play--ended one dark afternoon in Dallas. I was a little too young to have had much interest in following his act at the time, but even I had heard of Vaughn Meader back then. I've always wondered what happened to him in the years since. Oh, his name would surface from time to time, only to quickly slip away again, leaving my admittedly morbid curiosity far from sated. Because, while the man himself was still alive, never had such an enormous career been so instantly extinguished by events totally outside the control of the unfortunate one-time star. Well, anybody else out there with a fascination for cult figures, names from the periphery of history, and an "E True Hollywood Story" we're unlikely to ever see--but SHOULD--would do well to scare up a copy of this week's EW. I don't want to rehash the whole story, but I will say Meader is still with us, though not in the best of health. And, not surprisingly, things haven't gone all that well for him since the events of November 22nd, 1963 transpired...

Ironically, while basically putting the kibosh on Vaughn Meader's recording career--the successful aspect of it, anyway--the Kennedy assassination conversely launched the recording career of Mr. Erskine's fifth grade class. Concerned that we wouldn't have nearly enough time to learn new material when it came our turn to perform, the principal graciously allowed us to pre-record some long-forgotten standard piece of dramaturgy on one of those bulky old reel to reel machines which we'd then lip sync for an audience of friends, family and peers.

The show, it seems must go on. Except, it would appear, in certain very specific cases...

March 24th, 2003

If, during the past couple of decades, I saw, either in a theater or on video, more than two or three movies in the very same calendar year that they were actually released, that'd be a generous approximation. And yet, every year, the absolute only awards show I will watch--refuse to miss, truthfully--are the Oscar ceremonies!?!

Doesn't really make sense, I know, but it's the way things are. And of course, there I was, on the edge of my seat last night, watching.

Steve Martin did a fine job as host. While perhaps not quite as sparkling a performance as he gave during his first shot two years back, but at least as funny--and not nearly as smug-- as Billy Crystal's turns up front. Whoopi Goldberg? Please. She falls squarely into that category known as "I don't get it--how did THIS person make it so far??" Academy--stick with Steve. He's long been one of my favorite standup comics, though his movies are a whole 'nother kettle of corn. Fact is, my dissatisfaction with several of his earliest epics may well have been what put me off movies in the first place!...

WHY do I watch? Well, I tune in for gaffes, controversy, odd moments, and to see stars from the past exhumed, and folks, Hollywood's 75th self-congratulatory little tea party didn't disappoint in ANY of those crucial areas! (And no, I'm NOT there to check out what folks are wearing, unless it's really odd or really skimpy. Sean Connery had the wackiest outfit of the night, prompting a laff-out-loud line from Martin regarding it's similarities to uniforms worn by the help down at the Red Lobster!!). Best Actor recipient Adrien Brody gave the Best Presentation (it was MORE than a speech!). The prolonged kiss to presenter Halle Berry at the outset seemed to catch her--and us-- genuinely off guard, and I furthermore commend him for scolding--and then stopping--the orchestra when they attempted to play him off the stage, rightly saying, pipe down guys, this is my ONLY shot! (...If only F. Murray Abraham, Geoffrey Rush and Ben Kingsley had used their time so wisely...) Mr. Brody also successfully managed a tightrope act attempted by only a precious few last evening--come out against the war, but don't actually get anybody upset in doing so. Unlike, say, that Michael Moore fella...

Say what you will about the guy and his views, but I just had to laugh as, while being booed off the podium, he took the time to invoke the names of both the Pope AND the Dixie Chicks as a way of buttressing his anti-administration argument! One has to wonder about one thing, though--he brought all his fellow nominees for Best Documentary Film up on stage with him in, as he said, a show of solidarity. Obviously, this was planned beforehand, but what if someone ELSE had won?? Would they in turn have ALSO trotted the whole contingent up in front of the cameras? And how about the poor guy who shot some nice film of birds flying around and around--do you think HE really wanted to be part of Mad Mike's demonstration?!? Make a pleasant little flick about migration, and the next thing you know, you've gotta worry about getting your taxes audited!?! Sometimes these protests really ARE for the birds!...

After the obligatory "In Memoriam" segment (marred by, it would seem, less disproportionate cheering for favorites than in the past--or maybe folks plain didn't much care for this year's crop of recent R.I.P.s...), Steve Martin came back from commercial break with a couple of fairly edgy--for this room, anyway--gags, the first about hoping to one day make the memorial scroll himself, the other being that up later will be a montage of folks you THOUGHT were dead, but actually weren't!! Then, in a truth is stranger than fiction moment, the Academy dispensed with notion of film altogether and trussed a hefty 59 past winners out onto the stage, many of whom had seen better days!! Sitting amongst the likes of Geena Davis, Mary Steenbergen, and the aforementioned Mr. Kingsley were Academy antiques Olivia De Havilland (spry at 86), Karl Malden (who looked to be drifting a bit at 91), Jack Palance (going strong at 84), Eva Marie Saint (a veritable kid at 78), several fully grown--and then some--child actors from the forties, including the Mick (only 82!), Ernie Borgnine (at 86, he still seems like he could play McHale), George Chakiris (not all that old true, but his career is), and, as announced, the VERY senior member of the crew, Luise Rainer. They didn't tell us HOW old though, so I had to check the web to find out the actress who scored back-to-back Best Leading Lady statuettes in the mid-thirties was a mere 93. Yeah, nice pair ya got there, ma'am, but whatta ya done LATELY??

Speaking of age, why'd the Oscar bigwigs shunt the tribute/advance 100th birthday wishes to the (so far) immortal Bob Hope off to the pre-show? A guy who's hosted a record 18 times deserves better than THAT! Next year, bring him out!! (...If he's not off entertaining the troops, that is...) Having Kirk Douglas--86!!--and his young son, Mikey, announce the Best Picture was a nice touch, as was the elder Douglas's defiant ( though most likely scripted) use of the phrase "and the winner is" over the more P.C.--and pedestrian-- " and the Oscar goes to.."

Film montages of past Oscar night show musical numbers? That was quickly surpassed in absurdity with a montage of past Academy presidents introducing the festivities--which the producer's chose to run when last night's event was nearly OVER?? Huh?

And speaking of music, though I've never been that big a U2 fan, I really thought their ditty from "Gangs of New York' was gonna win. (Come to think of it, Martin Scorcese's magnum opus came up TOTALLY empty, didn't it? Gee, you don't think this is gonna anger him so much that he'll, oh, I don't know--go out and make a really violent movie or something, do ya?...) Paul Simon's entry seemed worthy as well, though I don't know if winning an Oscar for composing a tune spotlighted in "The Wild Thornberrys" movie would set all that well with rock's Mr. Serious, y'know? And, hey, who REALLY expected Eminem to win? Not presenter Barbara Steisand--and by the way, wasn't it fun watching her and several other well known Hollywood rabble-rousers ascend the podium and struggle to keep their feelings to themselves? Maybe they felt Mr. Moore had said it all, and there was no topping his presentation anyway. Or maybe they didn't wanna risk losing the love?... Apparently our boy Mr. Em didn't expect props from the Academy, either. For the first time in recent memory, a nominated song WASN'T performed, and wouldn't you know it--it was the one that WON!?! Gee, what I would've given for the old days, when in the absence of the original performer, the song would've been rendered by the likes of the Doodletown Pipers!?! That would've trumped the rest of the night going away in the kookiness column, you betcha!! And howabout the fella who DID accept for the AWOL Mathers? Nice hockey jersey, fella, but this ain't the MTV Awards, pal! After all, you didn't see Triumph the Insult Comic Dog anywhere around, did you? Maybe Eminem thinks that pooch attends ALL the awards shows, and was intent on ducking him?? A good a reason as any to miss the Oscar ceremonies--or maybe HIS hockey jersey hadn't come back from the cleaners yet, who knows?!?…

And when it was all over, after my local news, instead of the special live episode of "The View" or "Politically Incorrect", the likes of which ABC has run post-awards in past years, we instead got "Joel Siegel's Road To the Oscars", a bit of fluff clearly designed to be telecast BEFORE the envelopes at the Academy Awards were opened!! I realize WHY this was done--extensive war coverage ate up all the earlier hours, clearly--but it still seemed like an odd thing to broadcast at that moment. Oh well, it's paid for, so I guess that means run it, right?

Three final words about the 75th Academy Awards: Hayley Mills. Sigh...

March 23rd, 2003

It was the mid-nineties. Our first home computer had been installed several months earlier. Used primarily by programmer Lynn, I initially shied away from this new-fangled piece of equipment. Eventually, though, as technologically inept as I was--and remain--I cautiously ventured towards this wonder machine and attempted to replicate instructions Lynn had given me only the night before, with--surprise!--absolutely NO success. Observing how my frustration level was steadily rising, my daughter Julie, then all of five years old, sauntered over to see what was driving her old man to such dithering distraction. Quickly assessing the situation, my little girl knew immediately what to do--she pressed "enter"!?!

Is it any wonder that my pint-sized genius scored a First Prize Medal at the local Science Fair yesterday?

Okay, okay--I know that sounds like bragging, but pardon me for beaming with parental pride, all right? Besides, to be totally honest with you--and after confessing that I needed a kindergartner's help starting my computer, how could you doubt that I'd hold anything back??--Julie's achievement, while certainly admirable, isn't nearly as impressive as it sounds. Y'see, there's more than one First Prize--LOT'S more!! In each grade level, the various exhibits are broken down into a half a dozen or so categories--biology, chemistry, technology, physics, math, etc.--and multiple awards are given out in each age group for each specialty. And, since even those who come up short in the First, Second and Third Prize areas receive an Honorable Mention ribbon; NO ONE goes home empty-handed (or minus a new neck ornament). Still, as we've been participating in these fairs since at least the fourth grade with nary a nod from the judges for a higher finish than third--with several dubious Honorable Mentions filling out our resume--we were as thrilled as Mr. and Mrs. Einstein must've been when young Albert finally made it to that (somewhat crowded) winner's circle! HOW we found out, though, is a bit of a beef of mine...

Briefly, here's the process--the kid's set up in pre-assigned areas in a local high school gymnasium between 8 and 9 on a Saturday morning. Judges mill about between 9 and 12, judging. At noon, the doors are opened to the public--parents, mostly--who walk about trying to look interested at all the pre-cut cardboard backing displays showcasing experiments bearing such provocative titles as "Does Vinegar Split A Coin?", "Does TV Mess Up Your Mind?", "If I Cut The Cheese, Where Should I Put It?", "Why Use Mouthwash?" (you may not want to stand TOO close to this junior genius), and the ominous sounding "Things People Do When They Think No One Is Watching"!! As the afternoon drags on, and the kids boredom level increases, tents are folded and arcane paraphernalia packed up and put in the back of dad's trunk as everyone eagerly awaits the Awards Ceremony at 3pm.

Crowded in your standard issue auditorium are ALL the participants and ALL the parents--brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, too. Standing room only for those late to arrive--at least that's the way it begins. Tedious, but yes, necessary introductions of judges, faculty, and school board members always eats up a half hour at minimum (at least this year, nobody attempted to SING!?!), Finally, the time arrives to read the list of winners! This is accomplished in the time-honored tradition of leading up to the top prize-snarers, but you know what that means?? EVERYBODY is there to cheer and applaud for the folks who are tossed the Honorable Mention bone, and the auditorium is three fourths empty by the time the kids who came out on top are given their props!?! Imagine a rock concert where EVERYONE is in attendance to listen to the unknown opening act, but most everybody's wandering off when the Stones hit the stage!?! It's a Bizarro World moment. And of course, each time your name ISN"T read in your specific category, you know you've made it to the next level. When Julie wasn't included in the Second Placers, we knew her ultimate fate--or so we hoped!! Y'see, in a rather embarrassing oversight LAST year, some Honorable Mentions were overlooked, and had to be read at the END of the ceremony, mistakenly leading some poor saps into thinking that somehow, someway, their modest little projects had hit the big time!?! Oops. Maybe it was all that ill-advised singing by the retiring faculty member that derailed things...

(Oh, and in case you were curious as to whether WE fled the crowded confines of the auditorium in year's past when Julie didn't scale the heights she managed this time around, the answer is, well, yeah. We didn't wait for all the winner's to be properly recognized before we too took the proverbial hike. Does that make us hypocrites? Well, yeah, I guess it does--but that doesn't mean I don't have a point, does it? Does it?...)

Just what about this accolade accruing entry, anyway? Well, it WASN'T "Catnip Frenzy", "Are Fish Smart?", "Can A Rabbit Identify Shapes?", "pHinicky pHoliage", "Are You Allergic To School?", "Pickle Power", "Size Means Nothing!", "Do Your Bones Shrink At Different Times Of The Day?", "The Electric Lemon", "The Physics Of Walking", "The Danger Of Chemistry", or the evocatively titled "Let It Burn", authentic entries all. No, Julies experiment went by the less exciting but straightforward title of "The Effect Of Moisture On Mold Growth", (although the word "Affect" almost made it onto the display board until Lynn realized that Julie's terminology may've been just a shade off. Hey, I never said the kid was gonna win any spelling bees, dig?) This rather simple exercise basically dealt with a dozen or so pieces of moldy bread, each in it's own individual zip-loc baggie, with the progress of the various slices carefully charted by our junior scientist. Thanks to the magic of the computer and its' accompanying printer, our girl typed up her data, chose an attractive typeface and, before you knew it, voila! Science project!! Sure, Lynn helped a bit, and I taped the printouts onto the board--I'm good at lining things up squarely, y'see. Around here, that's one of my most helpful talents! But Julie did almost all of it her own self, and a fine job she did! Worthy of First Prize, in fact. Just like all those others...

I don't wanna come as knocking those mentioned honorably. Participation ISN'T required, understand. Oh, there are some teachers, particularly in the sixth grade (Julie's in seventh) who throw an extra five or so points towards students who sacrifice a sunny spring Saturday--and for half a grade increase, you'd have to be dumb not to--but as the years roll on, less and less kids get involved. So I salute any and all of you who take the time to make the effort. After all, it wasn't all that long ago that a certain gravity tableau failed to ignite much interest in the eyes of the judges ("Look! When I drop this, it falls DOWN!!"), and our NEXT experiment isn't gonna be the one about the rocks and the inhabitants of glass structures, okedoke?

The next move? For a, ahem, nominal fee, Julie's experiment is qualified to enter the county wide science fair coming up in two weeks (this one was strictly the local school district). The best of the best compete, this time for some REAL prizes, and in a college gymnasium rather than a high school one. Thankfully, they've changed the awards procedure so that they're bestowed upon the winners in their own schools at later date, the better, I guess, to impress people who know you as opposed to a bunch of people at the fair who don't. Whatever, we'll be there, as that gruesome loaf will have time to grow even more yellowish green-black mold, just the sight of which will put you off sandwiches for a MIGHTY long time!?!...

That's it. Done for today. Now, if I can just find Julie, maybe she can help me turn this crazy computer thingamajig OFF!?!...

March 22nd, 2003

Just ask Carl Douglas how things were in 1974. The Jamaican born singer will be glad to tell you:

"Everybody was Kung Fu fighting", pretty much sums things up in the ever poetic words of his immortal (and, as it turned out, only) smash hit record.

And Marvel Comics would've been remiss if they hadn't tried to hop aboard that bandwagon--or was it a rickshaw? No matter-- they enlisted the aid of top talents Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, and before you knew it, Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu was born!! And as if to really cover all bets, Marvel, then in the throes of a literary raiding rampage--Robert E. Howard's Conan, Shelley's Frankenstein, John Jake's Brak, somebody-or-other's Gulliver Jones, numerous short story adaptations--decided, as icing on their rice cake, to make the star's daddy none other than Sax Rohmer's world famous arch villain himself, the immortal--literally-- Fu Manchu!! With a line-up like that, Marvel had themselves one doozy of a series!! Unfortunately, the A list creative team quickly decamped, abandoning their charge after only a few episodes. This happy little family drama soon found itself in the hands of two relative newcomers, writer Doug Moench and penciller Paul Gulacy. Sometimes, as they say on the fortunes found, well, YOU know where--sometimes things happen for a reason. And the reason clearly was to let these two neophytes shine in ways no one could've ever predicted when they inherited the assignment.

MASTER OF KUNG FU soon became one of Marvel's most thoughtful, carefully plotted and intelligently written books thanks to Moench. And the art!! Utilizing a style reminiscent of comics genius Jim Steranko, Paul Gulacy brought the stylized martial arts action alive on the page in a way few--if any--artists had been able to before, or for that matter, since! Moreover, his crackling, kinetic fight scenes were given additional depth by his ability to create background environments that appear convincingly complete. And did I mention the knack for sublimely rich facial expressions? Yup, all that combined to make Moench and Gulacy's MOKF one of the best comics series of the mid to late seventies, one that has been subsequently sadly overlooked in the wake of the tremendous strides in comics craft brought on just a few short years later by the arrival of Alan Moore and Frank Miller into the field. Sure, I love the stuff those guys grind out, but let's not forget EVERYTHING that went before, okay? MOKF had a hand (and a foot) in the rising and advancing of the comics' medium, y'know? Let's not overlook the book's very real achievements, okay?

And now the boys are back in town, with a newly minted six issue MASTER OF KUNG FU limited series, done under the somewhat dubious auspicious of Marvel's "adult" oriented Max label. While this is the first reunion of Shang-Chi--as well as key associates Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, Black Jack Tarr, and, of course, his demented daddio--with Moench and Gulacy in many a year, it's hardly the first time Doug and Paul have joined forces in the time since last chronicling Marvel's foremost Asian adventurer. The fellas have merged their talents probably a dozen additional times in the intervening years, on about just as many different series (my personal favorite being a brilliant James Bond pastiche). Fact is, I make it a point to buy ANYTHING Gulacy works on, as he's one artist who never disappoints. His rich sense of scene always makes the stories he draws believable, and his powerful storytelling serves to move the proceedings along at a breakneck pace!! Doug's lucky to have him, and so's Shang-Chi--the question was, were they lucky to have the Max label, and would we readers who fondly remembered their past triumphs be lucky to see how matters shaped up, three decades on?...

Regular readers of "Fred Sez" might recall my less than enthusiastic reaction to Marvel's updating of that other seventies icon, HOWARD THE DUCK. The letdown I felt after reading that revamp caused me to approach this new MOKF with a great deal of trepidation. Well, I'm happy to report that my fears were mostly without merit. The multi-part "Hellfire Apocalypse" won't make any critics short lists next year, but it IS a rollicking good adventure yarn, full of fast action, familiar characters, and a satisfying conclusion. It would seem that, wisely, Doug and Paul didn't enter into this as an opportunity to tell THE Shang-Chi story, but to tell A Shang-Chi story. As such, it more than accomplished its goal. Maybe, in all honesty, it wasn't the absolute BEST work Moench and Gulacy have ever done--together or solo, on MOKF or elsewhere--but it more than sufficed. I had fun spending time with old friends, and given the track record of recent revitalizations throughout the comics' world, the mere fact that I can say that with a straight face puts things WAY ahead of the game! Cuz gang, that Max label had me plenty worried...

You've all seen it by now--"Parental Advisory EXPLICIT Content" emblazoned boldly across each and every cover of the still young Max offshoot, practically BEGGING for kids to figure out a way to get their sweaty little mitts on the forbidden carrots their old pals at Marvel are so temptingly dangling right there in front of them!! Compared to DC/Vertigo's far more subtle "Suggested for Mature Readers" line of teeny tiny type, the folks at Marvel seem to practically be DARING their underage clientele to find a way to score some of their (alleged) smut!! Having thus far made it through the Howard series as well as the first story arc over in ALIAS--and having heard about some of the stuff over in OTHER Max titles--I admit that, since MOKF didn't strike me as an obvious candidate for parental concerns. I now had some of my own...

Were Clive Reston and Black Jack Tarr going to indulge in profanity laden dialogs straight out of "Pulp Fiction"? Was Shang-Chi going to rip the head off an opponent, then hold the head aloft so we lucky readers could all enjoy the sight of the bloody entails dripping from the poor saps neck? And most importantly, were we going to see the lovely Leiko Wu "gasp" NUDE?? Well, I'm happy to say that we had to endure NONE of this (okay, maybe I'm not overjoyed about that last one, but it DID show admirable restraint--darn it all...) Tarr still peppered his speech with enough "bloodys" to keep a vampire happy, and while he and Reston did let a few British expletives slip out, none of our old pals conjured up the far too pervasive "F" word. The violence level didn't often surpass code levels, and when it did, it was merely to showcase mildly gory gun wounds. That's NOTHING these days, folks. Yes, Leiko brandished some impressive cleavage--even the hint of a nipple or two upon occasion--and some lovely extras made several far too intermittent appearances bedecked in the latest of what Victoria can seemingly no longer keep secret. Fact is, with a few small alterations, none of which would hurt the tale's integrity, this could've come out sans advisory. But as if to justify the Max seal of disapproval, Agent Morgan Spetz was added to the mix.

A young, aggressive agent who's clearly obsessed with usurping the older Tarr's position in the spy agency MI-6, Spetz is portrayed leading his own Omega Team with an iron fist and--yes--foul, foul mouth!! It's his job, and save for a final scene that includes an "F" fest between him and a subordinate, and his job alone to man the "F" word!! It's all rather silly, but if that's what it took to A.) get this series green-lighted, and B.) keep old, familiar characters from swearing up an improbable blue streak, hey, I'm all for it. Bad enough Moench and Gulacy had to figure a way to get through the entire six issues without saying old Fu's given name--Marvel no longer has the rights, you see--but they had to work some truly gratuitous cussin' into the stew as well!! A tip of the hat for meeting these rather immature requirements, all the while, not violating the memory of previous glory--and bonus kudos for not blurting out "Fu Manchu" even once!! Nice job @#$%ing, fellas!!

Hopefully, Marvel will elect to issue a trade paperback collection of this entertaining series, and if they do, I've got a suggestion for who might best pen the inevitable foreward--Carl Douglas! After all, everybody was Kung Fu writing!!...

March 20th, 2003

Well, the war has begun in earnest.

(I'm tempted to say, "No, it's actually begun in Iraq", but this isn't really the time for jokes, is it?...)

Am I for this war? Does it really matter? It's a done deal at this point, isn't it? Y'know, there was a time back when I was younger when I pretty much thought I knew everything, and I would've been morally incensed--incensed, I say!-- at certain aspects of the governments actions leading up to this conflict, but now?... Hey, maybe they know something I don't. Maybe this IS the right thing to do. It's possible, I suppose. Probable? Let's not go there. All I can do is hope for a swift and relatively painless resolution to this situation, and that whatever DOES happen, hope it doesn't cause larger problems down the way. Because, y'know, it could.

The best solution? Saddam Hussein flees his country, and takes refuge as the defacto ruler of the faux Iraq in EuroDisney's version of Epcot!! Viva la irony!!

Having dispensed with the obligatory comments with regard to current events, I'd now like to change directions entirely, and say a few words about Peter David.

"Peter David", you ask?

"That's right, Peter David" I reply.

I first met Peter David years ago while I was a guest at a comics convention in, I believe, Ottawa, Canada. This was so long ago that Peter David was still working in the Marvel Sales Department and had yet to write his first story for the House of Ideas. Even then, Peter David was irrepressible, brash, and enthusiastic, and I recall spending an entertaining dinner with him and several other con guests during my visit up North.

When next I encountered Peter David (at a New York based con), I congratulated him on his very fine work penning the "Death of Jean DeWolff" series in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, which, as it would turn out, served as a mere precursor to a long and celebrated writing career for Peter David. Not long after, at yet ANOTHER N.Y. gathering, I found myself requesting an autograph from Peter David, this time on a spanking new copy of his first novel, "Howling Mad" (soon to be a major motion picture, word has it!), a boon Peter David gladly granted me.

The next time I saw Peter David, he was hiding behind a piece of furniture in an upstate New York abode--and so was I!! The then current writer of First Comics' DREADSTAR, Peter David had been invited --as was I--to participate in a surprise 40th birthday party for the legendary Jim Starlin!! Lost amongst all the hubbub, Peter David and I had barely time to speak, but the important thing being, Jim indeed was surprised! And nobody was killed.

The last time I saw Peter David was several years back at Shea Stadium, where we both were part of a large contingent of comics' folk taking in the opening day game of the New York Mets baseball season. Having driven down to the event with my friends Matt Poslusny, Chris Eliopoulis, and Ron Marz--who, with Peter David, had recently co-authored the MARVEL VERSUS DC limited series--due to seating arrangements (and a nasty cold I was dogged with) I only had the opportunity to exchange brief pleasantries with Peter David. That was, up to this point, my last encounter with Peter David.

But you know what? He's got a web site!! Yup, and you know what it's called? Peter! And on a recent visit there, I noticed something interesting, something I didn't quite understand, but something that nonetheless intrigued me. Y'see, at the bottom of his first page there's a long list of various websites. Next to each name is a number in parentheses. The heading reads, and I quote: "Documents referring to this site within the last 24 hours (minimum 2 references)" unquote.

So, folks, consider this a test of the Internet broadcasting system. Yes, I told you those rather slight little anecdotes about Peter David solely in the hopes that now will be listed amongst the many other sites discussing the trials, tribulations, and of course, the triumphs of Peter David!! Yes, I am THAT desperate for the publicity!!

You may think this is a sleazy ploy, but it's no worse than some of the tactics employed over in my Guest Book!! Like the joker from Sweden who checked in with some generic comment--"Nice site, ya?", leaving a link behind. Hit that link, and lo and behold, you're over at the gates of some adult web page!! That's right gentle reader, some character was attempting to turn my site into a portal to porn!?! And before some of you get a little TOO excited at this news, be aware that Lynn has already severed the link (ooooooo...he said "severed!?"....). We did, however, allow the insincere comments to remain. We have only so many scruples, please realize…

In all seriousness, Peter is an entertaining Internet destination, and I recommend you all take a look at it when you get the chance--even you, Sven!! (…and I wonder, will I get bonus points for the number of times I repeated the name "Peter David"? Maybe I'll have to make it part of my sign off--"Peter David, Peter David, Peter David, Peter David, and goodnight"? Well, if it gets me just one new browser, it'll all be worth it. And thanks, PAD, for allowing me siphon off the tiniest amount of your overflow!! You've come a long way, buddy!!)

March 19th, 2003

It's a SpongeBob SquarePants world--we all just live in it! You, me, and Jim Starlin alike!

That's right--I've linked the names of Stephen Hillenburg's lovable nautical Nick sensation with that of comics legendary leveler of multiverses. Why? Well, it all goes back several years now...

I've mentioned Julie from time to time. My kid. Like any other kid, she watches her share of TV--though being a pretty active one, usually only as a last resort. But when she does plop down in front of the tube, odds are that the dial is switched to Nickelodeon. Over the years, she's tuned into just about every program they've aired, including all the cartoons--"CatDog", "The Wild Thornberrys", "As Told By Ginger", "The Angry Beavers", "Hey Arnold!", "Rocket Power", and, of course, the always popular "Rugrats". None of 'em ever did a thing for me. Of course, I generally didn't sit down and actually watch a full episode all the way through with Julie--y'see, having her attention focused on the tube usually gave me a rare couple of minutes to myself!! Especially when she was younger, she kept me hopping, so I took my breaks when and where I could get them. Usually, I was located nearby, so I HEARD more than my share of the aforementioned animated series, and frankly, I was never felt motivated to investigate any of them much further. I relished my downtime instead. Ah, the peace and the partial quiet...

Then one day Julie came up to me and said Nickelodeon had a brand new cartoon, one I just HAD to see!! I was skeptical, but just to keep the conversation moving along, I casually asked, only half caring, what the name of this new masterpiece was.

"SpongeBob SquarePants", she said.

...? What? WHAT was that? Well, she repeated the name, a name that combined four separate words in a configuration that, given all the time in the world to consider, I NEVER would've expected to hear in the same phrase!! Needless, to say, she now had my full attention. I was so stunned by what I'd heard, I initially accused Julie of making it all up (if only...), but once I was assured by a quick glimpse at the program listings in the TV Guide that this SpongeBob SquarePants did indeed exist, it was just a matter of time, waiting for the next scheduled broadcast to begin. My curiosity had been peaked.

All this time later, I'm not sure what I expected from my first exposure, but I certainly didn't expect to be so totally entranced, I can guarantee you that!! I do recall that upon seeing the little guy for the first time, I pegged him as a rip-off of one of Robert Crumb's Snoids, a notion I've never been totally able to shake (in fact, there's an actual episode--the one in which our star vainly attempts to write an essay--that offers a knowing wink at this accusation. Crossing the screen to get a pencil, SnoidBob looks directly at the viewer, smiles, and carries himself to his destination in an exaggerated "Keep On Truckin'" fashion!!)

Getting past that initial impression, I found myself continuously surprised by what I saw. Frankly, I'd never cared for the other animated Nick fare largely because of the generally unattractive designs utilized for the characters. It limited my enjoyment. But here in Bikini Bottom, all the denizens seemed to posses the fluidity of classic cartoon characters--and the animators weren't at all shy about putting their malleability to good use in the pursuit of surrealistic silliness!! The stories, over time, came to remind me of the simple, direct sitcoms of my youth: "The Honeymooners", "I Love Lucy" and most especially, the antics of those two classic comedy teams, Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello. A small plot point would quietly unfold, and then slowly be elaborated upon exponentially, the laughs amassing as the situation increases sky high in absurdity!! And all done without the sort of rude or mean-spirited gags all too typical of today's entertainment! Wow! In this day and age--who'da thought it possible?

And then there was that voice! Do they dole out Emmys to voice actors?? If they do, Tom Kenny should get a passel! His expressive yet distinctive tones run the gamut of emotions, inducing a smile with each and every one!! As do the talented folks who portray Patrick, Mr. Krab--purveyor of the Krabbie Pattie--Sandy, and, omigosh, Squidward!!! Culture lovers, I have to admit it-- I was won over, and I was won over big-time!!

Remember how I said this was a couple of years back? How the show had just hit the airwaves? Well, I felt as if I'd discovered buried treasure, and I wanted to share my find with all my friends and colleagues! Towards that end, I started proselytizing the virtues of SpongeBob at the ongoing volleyball game I gamely participate in. Confronted with the absorbent actor's jaw-dropping nomenclature, most of my buddies thought I was making up the ridiculous name (and to reiterate my earlier comment, I wish...), so to prove my veracity, I had to go home, tape an episode, put the tape on pause, and quickly whip up a black and white sketch of the squeezable star to bring with me the following week to appease all my doubters!! Whew!! Can you imagine? A time when the image of SpongeBob wasn't all-pervasive in our culture? When, if you wanted a picture of Senor SquarePants, you had no alternative but to draw it yourself?!? Man, were those ever the dark days...

I brought along the picture to our next gathering. Having previously played up this new character as perhaps the greatest breakthrough in animation since Winsor McCay embarked on a traveling show with Gertie the Dinosaur, it didn't do very much for my credibility. Frankly, the group began to look at me funny. Okay, I mean, even MORE so than usual. I think they thought I was nuts. They'd never heard of this character, and if not for me, I'm sure they figured, they probably never ever would have. So, I just shut up and played the game...

A little bit of time passes in our tableau. Several of the more adventurous amongst the regulars deign to dial over to Nickelodeon to see what all my fuss was about. The initial results were underwhelming. Consequently, I'm receiving more odd looks than usual. Then, a rift breaks out between factions of cartoon connoisseurs--a fella I really thought might like SpongeBob instead disparaged it. Found it not at all to his tastes, I was made to understand. He instead much preferred the Cartoon Network's Power Puff Girls, a series I, as it turns out, have never managed to work up very much enthusiasm for. This led to a very peculiar--some might say "pathetic"--sight: two grown men heatedly debating the merits of SpongeBob SquarePants versus the Power Puff Girls!?! Truthfully--are there ANY winners in THAT argument?!?...

And then, the breakthrough. One fine game day, Jocular Jim Starlin--yes, the man who killed Captain Marvel, re-invented Warlock, and gave the comics world it's first bald super-heroine, the folically challenged Moondragon--came up to me with a piece of paper he'd clipped out of the latest edition of NEWSWEEK .It was from their Newsmakers page, and it heralded the arrival of a new star, my old friend SpongeBob SquarePants. Jim smiled as he handed it to me, and while I don't recall exactly what he might've said, I'd like to believe this was his way of showing me that he didn't consider me nearly as crazy as he once might have!! Or if he did, here was legitimate proof that I wasn't alone in my madness!! It was a moment of great satisfaction, and that little clipping would henceforth spend the next several years taped to the front of our refrigerator, coming down only when time and errant squibs of Tropicana orange juice demanded it's removal. (...but no, Jim never became an acolyte. I'm gonna argue with the man who decimated Jason Todd?? I may be crazy, but I ain't NUTS!?!...)

Now he's EVERYWHERE!! No, not Starlin--SpongeBob!! And for once, I can proudly say I didn't follow a trend-- fact is, I may well have STARTED it!! Um, well, okay, sure-- AFTER Julie told me about it, of course, but heck--she's got her own section here at the site; if she wants to grab credit, let her do it over there!! Meanwhile, let me pleasantly revel in my prescience. The biggest cartoon sensation since The Simpsons, and I knew it before anybody!! (...Is it time to use the word "pathetic" again?...) All kidding aside, I'm happy for the folks behind the scenes, and both my daughter and I continue to enjoy the undersea antics of the submerged superstar and his friends!! (Which, at this point in her young and potentially rebellious development, is an increasingly rare instance of the two of us digging the same thing! Thank you, SpongeBob, for giving me a welcome conduit to my growing child!!...)

Y'know, we spent a week at the Jersey shore last summer, and up and down the boardwalk, all one could see hanging from the multitude of gaming booths was a veritable sea of stuffed SpongeBobs, with a few Spider-Mans thrown in mostly to break up the monotony! (...Didn't spy any Power Puff Girl merchandise, I might well point out! Hah!…) In addition to all the toys, band-aids, party goods, and even food bearing our boy's likeness, word is, the hottest new variation on America's most popular doll is the SpongeBob SquarePants Barbie!! (No, she's not square and absorbent, merely wearing a dress festooned with the yellow fellow's image, accompanied by her very own SpongeBob throw toy!! Can a Squidward Ken all that far off?...)

And howabout the show stopping guest-shot Mr. Pants made on last weeks "X-Presidents" entry over at "Saturday Night Live"?? For those who missed it, X-president Reagan proposed the manufacture of propaganda cartoons not unlike the anti-Japanese ones Bugs Bunny starred in back during WW2 to help sway positive public opinion towards engaging Iraq in armed conflict. To that end, he brings out Spongy--voiced and most likely animated by all his regular crew--who, true to character, balks at his new role, protesting that their depiction of Arabs is, well, racist! (It was. That was part of the joke...) Immediately put under lock and key by the no-nonsense Ronnie, a rescue is attempted by...The Power Puff Girls? Hm. Things don't go all that well for our cartoon friends, but in the end, it makes for a sharp and satisfying piece of political satire!! Again, who woulda thought??

Can you believe I've written all this because, at the outset, I merely wanted to alert the comics fans in the audience to a publication they may not be aware of--but well should be?? Haunt the newsstands, Silver Agers, because you don't want to miss the third in what appears to be one of Nick Mag's semi-annual Spongebob Squarepants Specials!! Chock full of cutting-edge comics creators--Roger Langridge, Sam Henderson, Mark Marek, and James Kolchalka, amongst others--the REAL treat comes when you get to the three page "Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy" adventure. You might recall this pair as SpongeBob and Patrick's favorite heroes, and were drawn in outfits EXACTLY like Aquaman and Aqualad's, save for a starfish covering Mermaid Man's nose, a few shells on his chest, and a hat and domino mask for his younger partner!! Well, for this thrilling installment, the fine folks at Nick have lured the Great Ramona Fradon out of retirement to contribute the artwork--and lemme tell ya, it looks just as good as the stuff DC Comics recently issued in their premiere AQUAMAN ARCHIVES Volume One!! I know I've been a little…harsh on the Sea King over the years, but even I can appreciate the sentimental if slightly skewed reunion taking place betwixt creator and character!! Heck, even my Power Puff Pal bought a copy!! I wholeheartedly advise the rest of you to run out and do so as well (Vinnie, this means YOU!!...)

And in the meanwhile, remember, if you're looking to have trends spotted,'s the place to be!! My NEXT big prediction? Hmm.... Howabout THIS one? Reality shows will become very, VERY popular, mark my words!!...

March 18th, 2003

Think you've heard it all, oh aging baby boomer? You lived through 1964's British Invasion with a transistor radio glued to your ear, and forty years later, every guitar lick, every drum fill, every background bippity bip bam boom is as familiar to you as if you heard it only yesterday, am I right? Well, think again, music lover! The tune may seem familiar, the voice even more so, but I guarantee you you've NEVER heard the chart-bustin' classics of '64 and '65 like THIS!?!

I'm talking about two recent unique CD releases I managed to get my grubby little paws on. The first one goes by the succinct title of "Top 40 Radio's Swingin' Soft Drink Spots of the 60's" (whew!), and it's a two CD set consisting of, well, I think you pretty much know by now, am I right? Custom made commercials--the vast majority for Coca Cola- interspersed throughout authentic recordings of the biggest disc jockeys of the day spewing their trademark banter!! Weather reports! Station IDs! News briefs! Corny jokes! And--oh, yeah--contests!! Win Beatles concert tickets!! Attend a personal appearance by TV's Man From U.N.C.L.E., Robert Vaughn! And all the while, listen to the hit-makers of the day twist some of their biggest hits into shameless little juice peddling jingles!!

The Four Seasons, Jay and the Americans, Tom Jones--it's not unusual for ANY top recording artist of that bygone era to be found extolling the dubious virtues of tooth decaying, sugar laden liquid refreshments!! Listen as The Coasters perform a medley of their many hits, with new lyrics written especially to service the soda industry! The Supremes--long before their billing was " Diana Ross and the"--weigh in with four separate jingles! Roy Orbison, the Drifters, Freddie and the Dreamers, Del Shannon, Jan and Dean, Freddie Cannon, the Shirelles, Lesley Gore--even the legendary Ray Charles!! They're all here hawking pop! And not a belch from even one of 'em--what are the odds?!?

And you know what? It's fascinating to listen to! It really is! Obviously done with great care and utilizing the same backing musicians found as on the Billboard bound versions, hearing overly familiar riffs suddenly transformed in service of a pitchman and his product can be a disconcerting, even surrealistic, experience. It begins as a mere novelty, but by the time the faux radio broadcast concludes, you're left wanting more!! More!! You begin to think-- hey? Didn't Herman's Hermits cut any of those cool cola spots? What about the Miracles? Lou Christie? The Beatles? (Okay, probably not the Beatles...) Who knows what's missing here, anyway? Not us, sad to say.

Y'see, one of the three major gripes I have with this set is the total lack of helpful annotation--there is absolutely no track listing whatsoever!! In fact--gripe number two--there are no tracks!! Okay, that's not entirely true--there's two on disc one, one on disc two--but the dozens of ditties are buried deep within the Top 40 audio montage, with no easy access for those who may just want to hear, for instance, the Lesley Gore commercial. (Lesley Gore is great!...) One gets the undeniable feeling that the cast list is being kept under wraps because, well, maybe they don't actually have the RIGHTS to this material!! It's possible. Or if they do, only under the condition that everyone's names are kept off the packaging. Who knows? Either way, it combines to frustrate the consumer who craves a little information with his tunes, dig?

Strike three is the total time the two CDs run--just a mere few minutes over 80 combined. Had the folks who put this together trimmed but a small portion of the DJ chatter, it could've all fit on one disc--either that, or open things up and give us listeners substantially more material, as there's certainly space for it. More! We thirst for more! Oh well, maybe a Coke'll satisfy instead...(...geez, this thing must be working it's magic on me?...)

And just how well this compilation'll entertain anyone who wasn't actually listening to AM radio four decades back is a mystery to me. However, I was, and so, despite my grumblings, I found this to a worthwhile purchase and a unique addition to the unique section of my vast CD library! After all, WHERE else am I going to hear Petula Clark take the biggest record of 1965--in fact, the biggest record of her entire CAREER-- the immortal "Downtown" and transform it into something that's totally different--yet so very much the same--as her original recording? Where, I ask you?

Well, howabout over on the German based (but American run) Bear Family label? Specifically, a disc with the zippy name of "1000 Nadelstiche Amerikaner & Briten Singen Deutsch"?? You ain't heard "Downtown", mein freunds, 'til you heard it warbled by the lovely Ms. Clark in the romantic language of German!?! It's sehr gut!! And that's only ONE out of thirty-one selections included on this generous collection (clocking in just seconds short of eighty minutes)!! While it does house it's share of forgotten performers--who exactly Toni Cavanaugh, Dave Colman, and the Liverpool Beats were I honestly couldn't tell you--most everybody else at least elicits name recognition, even if, in several cases, they're performing unfamiliar material. Roy Orbison--who deftly turned "Oh, Pretty Woman" into a killer soft drink jingle here offers an obscure number entitled simply "Mama"--Pat Boone, Manfred Mann, Spencer Davis Group, and Paul Anka all fall into this particular category.

But there's still a bounty of Deutsch-a-tastic thrills to be salvaged amongst the many remaining selections!! "Needles and Pins" by the Searchers, "Town Without Pity" by Gene Pitney, "Where Did Our Love Go" by the Supremes, "Have I the Right" by the Honeycombs, "Wishing and Hoping" by Dusty Springfield, "In My Room" by the Beach Boys, "How Sweet It Is" by Marvin Gaye--all sung in the Kaiser's mother tongue, the way they were always meant to be!?! But perhaps the two most amazing selections?? Well, I can't quite decide which redone rendition entertains and astonishes me more, "My Girl" by the Temptations, or (hold your breath now) "I Walk the Line" by der herr auf schwarz himself, Johnny Cash??? Hard to explain, yes, but once heard, impossible to resist!! My, my--a whole 'NOTHER new way to hear old favorites, and if you've any interest at all in these amazing artifacts, I suggest you macht schnell and grab yourselves some copies! Achtung!!

For the one or two of you that I may've enticed, let me inform you that the soft drink spots compilation is available for the fairly reasonable price of $19.95 from the fine folks over at Collectors' Choice Music, while the German language round-up is a bit harder to find. I saw it available at some of the larger CD sellers on the net, but for prices beginning in the mid-twenties--and that's not even taking into account postage and handling (which would apply to the Coke comp, too). I bought mine off of eBay from a fellow who apparently specializes in Bear Family releases, and as long as you're not bidding against each other, you can probably pick up a copy for under twenty bucks.

(Y'see, this all started when I stumbled across a listing for several Bear Family discs compiling various German groups performing covers of Beatle tunes in their native lingo!?! To date, there are three generous helpings of such delightful material available, and trust me, you haven't lived 'til you've heard "Uncle Albert and Admiral Halsey" chirped Germanically!?! And though I realize a large percentage of you are wondering WHY one might want to, you can usually find these CDs on eBay as well!! So, for the twisted few out there that I've helped inspire, good hunting! As for the rest of you, come back again tomorrow and maybe we'll be talking about something a little less...odd. Maybe. But no promises, okay?...)

March 17th, 2003

Top o' the mornin' to ya, lads and lassies!!

Joining me in wishing you all the best today are soul sensation Al Green, TV legend Lorne Greene, Silver Age embellisher Sid Greene, baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, Catskill comic Shecky Greene, "Spirit In Sky" songsmith Norman Greenbaum, Doctor Evil's son Seth Green, Golden Age crusader The Green Lama, columnist Bob Greene, "Casablanca's" Sydney Greenstreet, "ER's" Dr. Mark Green, master archer Green Arrow, Dodger outfielder Shawn Green, country star Lee Greenwood, radio hero The Green Hornet, writer Graham Greene, "All My Children's" Greenly Smythe, "Beverly Hills 90210's" Brian Austin Green, Captain Kangaroo associate Mr. Greenjeans, comedian Tom Green, Joe Simon's Green Team, arch-foe The Green Goblin, the denizens of "Green Acres", the Jolly Green Giant, Oa's entire Green Lantern Corps, and, of course, renowned chef, Emerald Lagasse!!

Or, in the words of the ever Incredible Hulk--

"Happy St. Patrick's Day, puny Leprechauns!!" (…To the Jade Giant, we're ALL wee folk, y'see...)

Fred O' Hembeck signing off!

March 15th, 2003

Well, I'm happy to report that I finally got to see that elusive episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer'--thanks again, Randall!!--and it got my mind to wandering on down memory lane.

Y'see, this didn't happen to be just any old episode of "Buffy", this was one of those change-of -pace, mess-with-the-format episodes. You know the kind. We've all seen them. Sometimes they're uniquely creative, sometimes they're unforgettably awful--and sometimes they're BOTH at the very same time!?! This happened to be one of the good ones, and it prompted me to think back over my many, many years of careful TV viewing and recall the numerous attempts made intended to shake up some complacent series' status quo I've been lucky enough (or not) to witness...

Starting off with the congregation of Sunnydale High alumnus, for those of you not up to speed, allow me to explain that this most recent "Buffy" episode was but part of a season long story arc. Andrew, a geeky self-styled super-villain, has been in the gang's custody for weeks now, his character's appearance usually offering up some much welcome comedy relief. This time out, the focus is on Andrew as he in turn puts the focus on the Scoobies--literally! Armed with a video camera, our Lucas-wannabe sets out to document Ms. Sommers battle against the forces of evil for posterity, all the while shading the record with his own stilted commentary as well as soliciting the observations of the others in the group. Without actually breaking the so-called fourth wall, this allows Andrew to speak directly to us in the audience. Any number of funny, revealing character bits crop up in the course of his filming, as the various stalwarts provide wildly different reactions toward his cinematic intrusion. Flights of fancy, quick cuts, multiple takes--they're all there. And just when you figure it's all in good fun, Andrew is made to confront the biggest mistake of his misbegotten life, leading up to a sobering--and satisfying--conclusion to yet another hour of one of the most criminally underrated programs on the primetime landscape. And to think I almost missed it!? Oy!!

It wasn't the first special "Buffy", though, by any means. That musical episode from last season garnered a lot of positive publicity, as well it might, since it was, shall we say, an across the board triumph!! Hey, I've got the CD, people, and I've actually given it multiple plays! It was that good!! And another well thought of "Buffy" was one entitled "Hush" from several years back. Y'see, a magic spell cast over Sunnydale transformed the town's inhabitants into a seething mass of Marcel Marceaus for the better part of an hour, thereby giving the filmmakers a chance to shine by creatively surmounting the dearth of dialog in a hefty portion of the script.

Of course, ersatz silent movies are nothing new. "Two Guys, A Girl and (maybe) A Pizza Place" took a stab at the concept not long ago, and the sixties staple, "77 Sunset Strip", also tried it. Truthfully, though, I haven't yet seen that particular episode, but a copy a friend made for me awaits just the proper moment (thanks Terry!!).

Backwards are done some! That's right, Zatanna devotees, apparently our fishnet bedecked reverse spell-caster got her magical mitts on at least two major scripts in times past and turned 'em completely upside down. Oh, I don't just mean stories told in flashback--they're a dime a dozen. I'm talking about those installments of "Seinfeld" and "er" that began with the tale's very last scene and then progressively worked their way frontwards towards the stories opening. It's not easy constructing a script that makes enough sense so that it can be followed in this odd manner, it would seem to me. Personally, the "Seinfeld" episode, where the group is initially spotted returning from a trip to India--prompting all us viewers to go, "Huh?"--was for me the more successful of the two. But all credit to "er" for trying, and I wish more shows had the guts to attempt this unique, if somewhat bizarre approach. Hey, why shouldn't I feel that way? After all, one of the first things I did when I bought my original CD player was to program the famed medley from side two of the Beatles "Abbey Road" in reverse order!! Why? Because I could, I guess...

Which is probably the same reason David Letterman once had the camera slowly turn one hundred and eighty degrees throughout the course of his allotted hour of network television. By the show's end, everything was upside down, to no real purpose except to, yes, prove that he could indeed do it!! Talk shows, with all the hours they eat up, are prone to wacky stunts of that ilk if only to gain a little deserved attention. Dave also once set up his ill-fated morning program in the home of some "lucky" viewer, as did Howard Stern some years later during the run of his syndicated show--although not the SAME viewer's vestibule, I hasten to assure you!!

During California's energy crunch, Jay Leno conducted an evening of the Tonight Show under the soft glare of candlelight. It may not've made the proceedings any funnier, but the eerie shadows playing across the host's chin made Jay seem a whole lot more menacing!!

Conan O'Brien once interviewed guests while setting up shop on the Staten Island Ferry, but my favorite stunt from the old redhead was when he populated his entire audience with nothing but kids between the ages of seven and ten--and then brought out an economist as one of his featured guests!! As best I recall, the terms "doody" and "boogers" made rare appearances in his opening monolog that particular evening!! As he remarked sometime after the fact, the most perplexing thing about that night was his inability to keep so large a group of kids quietly interested in the standard talk show antics! Couldn't be done! It wasn't necessarily GOOD television, but it was memorable television, no denying that!!…

Apparently there's a long-standing tradition of dress up on the Halloween edition of "Live With Regis and Kelly", but since I never deigned to watch during the Kathie Lee era, I can only speak to the Ripa years. Weeks after the 9/11 tragedies, Regis and Kelly emceed their show in the appropriately patriotic guises of Uncle Sam and an emerald tinged Lady Liberty, but it's this past All Hallows Eve transmission that truly left a lasting impression on me. For their latest go-round, the two co-hosts decided to swap personas, which meant swapping outfits!! Yup, Regis in a dress!! And yup, he made for one highly unattractive lady!! But the real fun was Kelly. Although she didn't look all that convincing in what she came to call her "little man" get-up, seeing her enthusiastically imitate her partner's blustery mannerisms while staying totally in character throughout what was essentially an hour of live improv made me respect her acting abilities far more than all those years she toiled away on the set of "All My Children"!?!…

Jimmy Kimmel has also had to face up to the trials and tribulations of live broadcasting on his fresh entry into late night television. Just last week he had the bombastic boxing promoter (and victim of a never-ending bad hair day) Don King as his co-host. Never one to fade into the woodwork, events reached critical mass on Don's next to last evening when the actor Vince Vaughn was a fellow guest. At one point--and for a surprisingly sustained period of time--all three men were yammering at the exact same time, so loudly and unrelentingly that not a single one could be understood over the other!?! I'd never quite seen anything like it outside of the warring factions one encounters on daytime talkfests!! While Jimmy could barely hide the look of frustration on his face, he did a marvelous job of making lemonade out of a great big hairy lemon when it came time for Mr. King's last opportunity to sit at his side. In the face of his imminent departure, Jimmy thanked Don for all he had done the previous four days, including hosting the last evening's show, "…even though I was still here" Jimmy added with good-natured sarcasm. But what made that edition noteworthy was the use of the closed-captioning technology throughout the entire broadcast, done so that EVERYONE at home, not just the hearing impaired viewers, could understand what was being said no matter how boisterous Don King became!!

Sometimes you never know how people are going to react on live TV, and that was probably the thinking behind the gimmick that elevated a viewer to host of a reasonably early transmission of NBC's venerable "Saturday Night Live". Most people remember that it was an elderly grandmother who finally wound up delivering the monolog that historic night, but most folks forget that she had to beat out at least three other challengers on an even earlier installment of SNL! Now, THAT'S the one I'd really like to see repeated on Comedy Central!!

Piping a performance out live always gets a show some ink and some cred. "er" did it. "Drew Carey" did it. "Failsafe" did it. Unfortunately, nothing particularly noteworthy happened despite the risks the immediacy presented. But hey, it was a nice idea.

Howsabout zany guest stars? Oh, I don't mean something as mundane as the latest box-office sweetheart showing up on a very special episode of "Friends", I mean the truly odd--and sometimes truly appropriate--casting decisions one is lucky enough to stumble across! For instance, there was that time the medical drama "St. Elsewhere" utilized actor Oliver Clark as a deranged man who believed himself to be the beloved sitcom character, Mary Richards!?! After several weeks, things came to a fitting conclusion when he encountered a fellow patient played by Jack Riley. Riley, you see, was well known to chronic tubehounds as Elliot Carlin, perhaps the most prominent patient regularly shrunk by shrink Bob Hartley on the "Bob Newhart Show"--as was (uh huh) Clark, better known to us fans as Mr. Herd. Now, since all three programs were MTM Productions, it was all boiled down to a very drawn out--and some would say, incestuous--in-joke, but y'know what? That's okay. I laughed.

As I did the time Cybill Shepherd found herself trying to domesticate her partner on "Moonlighting", a role generally played by a young and not so famous Bruce Willis. However, her efforts to smooth out character David Addison's rough edges resulted in him behaving like a mild, milk-swilling Pat Boone--and being PLAYED by a mild, milk-swilling Pat Boone, at least for part of the episode!! I can't honestly say I recall anything about the rest of the plot, but that's sure one stunt cameo that's stuck with me all these years! Guess you can never get enough Pat Boone, eh?

And howabout that clever "Deep Space Nine" episode? Y'know, the one where the characters somehow travel back in time and onto the sets of the ORIGINAL "Star Trek"?? Thanks to high-falutin' video trickery, Sisko and associates were co-existing with actors who had long since gained weight, lost hair and been hopelessly typecast!?! They never DID explain how the human-like Klingons from the sixties series seen in that crossover morphed into the much more alien-like ones of the latter day series. As I recall, Worf steadfastly refused to discuss it, merely saying it was a dark period in Klingon history. Okay, if that's the best you can do...

One actor crossing over from one entirely different series to another while remaining in character from the second but assuming the persona of the first--well, that is one tough thing to manage! Heck, it's one tough thing to say!! But Joe Flaherty pulled it off. Several years back, in the role of the father on the much missed and woefully under-appreciated "Freaks and Geeks", he was called upon to appear in a Halloween themed episode. Fans of the great "SCTV" will know exactly where I'm going with this--yup, he answered the door of his faux suburban home in full Count Floyd regalia, and if he didn't let loose with a few "Arrr-Oooooooss!!", well, by golly, he sure should have, don't you think!?!

Then there's the matter of our old friend from the planet Krypton. Boy, did he and his pals get around! First, there's that monumental fifties summit when icons clashed--Lucy Ricardo meets Superman!! Did she ever have some 'splainin' to do THAT day!! Decades later, George Reeves erstwhile co-stars, Jack Larson and Noel Neill garnered featured roles on an episode of the syndicated nineties "Superboy" series, though they didn't reprise their earlier characterizations for the occasion. However, a few years subsequently, Larson had the rare opportunity to do just that on a memorable "Lois and Clark". The story had young Daily Planet reporter Jimmy Olsen the latest victim of an aging accelerant (don't ask, just accept...). We observe as the current Jimmy, young and spry Justin Whalin, succumb to the formula's life-draining effects as he helplessly collapses behind a conveniently placed desk. And when next the camera focuses on Jimmy, he's the sixty something Larsen, who barely manages to croak out a single line calling for help--and soon!! Admittedly, a very cute touch, you gotta give the producers that. The only problem, however, was that the two actors looked absolutely NOTHING alike!! Nada. Zip. Zero. No way in the world does Justin grow up to look like Jack, y'dig? But, like I said--nice thought. Not unlike our latest Super-crossovers--the recent appearance by Chris Reeve on "Smallville'. What's next? Margot Kidder playing Ma Kent's old college roomie?...

And speaking of memories, how can you give any sorta thanks for them without including Bob "I sure am old" Hope? For all the great ones ol' ski-nose has provided, perversely, it's the last few TV specials he did that I'm always going to remember. If you didn't see them, you missed something truly unique--Bob Hope Specials pretty much without Bob Hope!! The latter day Christmas Specials consisted mainly of folks like Brooke Shields, Bea Arthur, and other "Love Boat" refugees milling about a fake cocktail party, making fake small talk, and reminiscing--via film clips, of course--about the gathering's ostensible host as they seem to endlessly wait for Bob to put in his inevitably brief appearance!! It was surrealistic, lemme tell ya, and it was all topped off in Hope Enterprises final Special for NBC a few years back, "Bob Hope and the Presidents". Hosted by Tony Danza in a fake Oval Office, Bob is only fleetingly glimpsed spinning around from a chair behind a fake desk, and saying but a few words, racking up the total screen time of less than a mere minute!?! A rather ignoble way for one of last century's biggest stars to go out, wouldn't you say? But who knows? When he hits the century mark in two months time, mayhap CBS will award him his own program. After all, they say they're always looking for new ways to lure in younger viewers thereabouts!!...

March 14th, 2003

When Lynn came home the other night, she told me she'd heard on the news that they'd found Elizabeth Smart. My first thought was, "Yeah? In how many pieces?..."

That's a horrible thing to say, I know. And no, I didn't actually think that, but I might as well have. Come on, admit it--how many of you out there ever expected to see that poor little girl alive again? Can't honestly say I held out much hope. Fact is, after dominating the 24-hour news channels for months, her case fell off the radar in recent times, and hadn't crossed my mind in quite awhile. A happy ending--if this indeed is one, as we don't know what that poor kid had to endure for the last nine months--is needed once in a blue moon, if only to give us all something to cling to when these unfortunate events occur--and sadly, you know they will. Barring an actual demise, there just can't be anything worse than what happened to this family. Believe me, gang, you don't want to be losing a kid. This whole sorry situation reminds me of a comparatively--drastically, even-- minor incident from my own life going back about a decade.

It was the time just after Halloween, which for stores meant only one thing--time to lug out their Christmas decorations from the back room! Julie was three years plus at the time, and one day I decided that we'd visit Caldor's, a local department store, for an outing. Oh, there was no intention of purchasing anything involved our plans--this trip was made solely to amuse my toddlin' daughter. And what could be more entertaining to a child her age than strolling up and down aisles and aisles of fake Christmas trees, animatronic Santas, flashing lights, fake snow, and all matter of festive chachkis?? Hey, I'll come right out and admit it--I got a big kick out of it myself!! And inasmuch as this was the first time the season truly registered with her, I marveled at her joyously innocent reaction to the delightful display before her. We must've spent a half an hour easy patrolling those aisles, but like all good things, our early holiday celebration eventually came to an end. We wandered about the store aimlessly for a bit until we found ourselves in what's always been my favorite section--the good ol' music department. And as they say on "Dragnet"--Dum De Dum Dum--and I mean REALLY dumb!...

Caldor had one of those layouts where various sections existed in rectangular, mostly closed off areas off the main aisles. Julie and I went over by the CD display, and I soon succumbed to my weakness for perusing the hip sounds of today (and yesterday). Now, I swear to you I didn't look away for more than 10 or 20 seconds tops, but folks, that's all it took. I looked up, and my little sweetie was gone! Nowhere in sight! Vanished! As this sobering realization quickly settled in, a feeling of full-scale panic charged throughout my now trembling body! I've just lost my kid! My only kid!! Just because--and here comes the inevitable guilt-- I was too busy looking at some stupid CDs!?! I'm entrusted to look after this tiny person, and THIS is what I let happen?!? Idiot!! And then the fear--did someone snatch her? I mean, it was a weekday morning and all-- the store was practically empty. She didn't get lost in any crowds, that I can pretty much guarantee--but it only takes one sicko to turn your whole life upside down, doesn't it? In slightly over three years, Julie had basically become the center of my universe, and to all of a sudden to be without that center!?! Brrr. Not a happy thought. It's almost ten years later, but I can still vividly recall the emotions I experienced that dark day.

Ready for the happy ending? Me too. Well, after swiftly leaving the music department in a sweat, it eventually occurred to me to backtrack our previous route. The relief I felt upon spying my darlin' little dearie standing amidst the gaudy holiday decorations, a gigantic smile across her face as she gazed up at the colorful displays, was nigh indescribable, lemme tell ya!! The kid had absolutely no idea what I'd just gone through, and at that tender age, there wasn't much I could do to properly explain it to her, so I just let it drop. Instead, I quietly reveled in the fact that, no, I hadn't lost my child that day, merely temporarily misplaced her!?! But I sure learned an important lesson that morning, and believe me when I tell you nothing like that EVER happened again. Because, after all, you can get yourself a dozen free CDs just for joining the BMG Music Service, but getting yourself a new kid? THAT ain't nearly so easy!?!

Julie's twelve now, and yeah, we have to let her out on her own from time to time, but only under the most controlled of circumstances. We still have all those delightful teen years to slog through, after all. For better or worse, I don't want to miss any of them. Luckily for the Smarts, they were denied less than a year of their daughter's life, and while--if the two or three minutes I dashed around Caldor are any indication--it was undoubtedly the most hellish nine months of their lives, hey, it sure beats the alternative...

March 12th, 2003

Jim Steranko was mad.

Actually, most of were pretty upset by the events that took place on September 11th a few years back. Apparently, feeling a need to vent, the legendary comics innovator wrote a piece that, I believe, ran in an issue of COMICS BUYERS GUIDE. Unfortunately, I don't have a copy in front of me, but if memory serves, the gist of his argument was that our culture was becoming coarser by the day, if not by the hour!! As the father of a 12 year old girl, I've seen plenty of evidence to support this viewpoint, though exactly HOW this all tied in with the terrorists despicable actions, I don't quite recall. Worry not, however--it's not germane to my upcoming discussion. We're concerned here with the godfather of Marvel's Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. disapproval of a then-recently announced project. The one time prestidigitator chose that forum to vent much of his frustration upon Image Comics' THE PRO.

Now, a comic centered around the exploits of a female super-hero who was also a, um, PROSTITUTE, would seem to fit all the criteria needed to prove our culture was indeed rapidly going to Hell in the proverbial hand basket!! Things had come a long, LONG way since Fury tried (unsuccessfully, as it turned out, thanks to the Comics Code) to take that phone off the hook on a long passed afternoon spent with his Contessa sweetie, lemme tell ya!?! I'm no prude, folks, but the idea of a hooker heroine may've been a bit too much even for me! Except...

Y'know, it's always very important to stop and consider exactly WHO'S responsible for the comics you're about to read. In my mind, a solid ninety nine percent of the writers working in the field today wouldn't have been able to successfully pull off such an audacious concept without it being totally offensive. Luckily, though, the one gent who might've had a chance to do the trick was also the one who was actually manning the keyboard: Garth Ennis! Oh, don't get me wrong--it was STILL offensive, but it was ALSO funny, and not necessarily in the mean-spirited way that you might envision!! Y'see, having plowed through the entire PREACHER saga 'bout a year or so back--after long avoiding it due to qualms regarding it's admittedly unsavory elements--I was more than willing to give Mr. E a little rope with this brand new creation. Cuz simply put, the 60 odd issues of PREACHER (and yes folks, some of 'em were pretty @#$%ing odd!) comprised, in my mind, one of the best, most consistent, and--despite all the sex, violence, and cussing--most MORAL series in recent comics history!! To paraphrase the airborne Sister, I liked it--I REALLY liked it!!! Understand please that I'm not one automatically enamored with the British scribes the way some folks are, but I'm always willing to at least give Alan Moore and our boy Garth here a look-see based on their outstanding track records. So, if Ennis wants to bring forth a comic about a super-powered streetwalker, then by golly, I'm there!...

First off, let's get this out of the way--it's a one-off--in, out, and over with. A one-shot, not a series-- and probably all the better for it. Basically, it's a foul-mouthed parody of the many time-honored super-hero clichés, vividly buttressed (heh, heh--I said "buttressed"!..) with the requisite ultra-violence and near-explicit sexual situations thrown in for proper effect. (If it'll ease anyone's minds, the situations aren't depicted in the triple X manner, but more in the skating right up to the edge approach that might STILL get comics shop owners from some states thrown in the hoosegow should the wrong customer fork over cash for THE PRO...) Without giving TOO much away about the story, essentially it deals with a single mother who supplements her meager legit income by, well, you KNOW by now, right? So, chosen at random by a pair of extraterrestrial busybodies to receive powers and abilities far beyond those of ladies of the evening everywhere, our titular star finds herself drafted into The League of Honor, the local sooperdooper organization--and a not-even-thinly-veiled take-off of the archetypical Justice League of America. Populated with various analogs of the classic membership--my favorite being the Lime, who spouts every jive-talking cliché ever stuck in the mouth of fellow black characters by pale-skinned scribes since the day Luke Cage was falsely convicted--the new girl proves to be a difficult fit. While not necessarily a bad person, The Pro is hardly the warm and fuzzy hooker with the well-known heart of gold. In fact, the ONLY place this streetwise gal has any gold on her is in her purse, believe you me!! The conflict--and the laughs--comes from watching such an earthy individual try to co-exist with a bunch of glorified Boy (and Girl) Scouts. Understand that I'm not an easy mark when it comes to laughing out loud, but it happened to me three times in the course of reading THE PRO, twice during scenes dealing with The Saint, the tale's not-so-subtle Superman.

Is THE PRO for everyone? No way! But thanks to the deft artwork from penciller Amanda Conner--a female, friends, for whatever THAT'S worth, given the subject matter--and inker Jimmy Palmiotti, Garth Ennis' potentially offensive script isn't, well, QUITE so offensive. But it IS more than a little on the strong side, so if that sorta stuff isn't your cup of tea, best you stay away. I myself get a little queasy when this sort of approach is forced upon long established characters, which is why I appreciate THE PRO and PREACHER all the more--do what you want with your own creations, guys, but don't muck up those grand old Lee-Kirby icons, awwright?? (And yes, I'm aware Garth Ennis took a pass at our old pal, Nick Fury, and no, I haven't read it. Yet...)

Ultimately, I found, despite my better instincts, that I was pleasantly amused by THE PRO. And, as it turned out, the Republic didn't crumble upon its publication after all, did it? The ONLY real question that remains is simply, WHAT did Jim Steranko think? Because, aside from the body of the book--and yes, that was SOME body!! (...sorry…), remember that THIRD laugh out loud moment I hinted at? It came at stories end when I glanced over towards the inside back cover. There, stark upon an all black background was this dedication printed in an unassuming white typeface--

"...for jim steranko"

Y'know, it'd sure be nice to think he got as big a chuckle out of this little tweak as I did, wouldn't it? Because, hey, if we can't laugh at ourselves, well, then maybe we're just taking ourselves a little bit TOO seriously, don'tcha think? I mean, I'm sure Superman would've chuckled at the Saints' antics, dig? That's just the kinda guy he is, and I'm sure Mr. S isn't much different! And anyway, having a book dedicated to oneself is an honor, right? Right???...

Okay, usually. I STILL think it's funny--so sue me...

March 11th, 2003

Watch out! Be careful! It's--it's--


That's right folks--I've hit the wall!!

After working on this site for the last four months pretty much non-stop--two months before it went up, and then two after--I ran out of things to say. Momentarily. There's still plenty of stuff percolating upstairs, but for the past week or so, it hasn't had any success flowing out through the ol' fingertips. This is just a note to assure you all that this is merely a temporary situation, and in fact, several fairly expansive pieces are being planned for the very near future. In the meantime, don't think I've just been sitting on my hands--nine new pages of KIDZ have been pencilled as well as three new covers. Scans have been scanned, and the long awaited opening of our "More" section is imminent! This latter event will be tied in with an upcoming review that'll soon appear right here, so if you regularly check these random ramblings, you won't miss it, worry not!!

In addition, Lynn is coloring a few more covers for the Gallery, and I'm attending to some mildly overdue commissions--soon, fellas, soon! Before you know it, I'll be blathering on and on about some obscure CD, some inane TV movie (care to guess which one?...), or even some offensive comic book, and it'll be like I never left!! The promised war in Iraq? Probably won't come up. I prefer to leave THAT topic to those far more qualified that I--like my 12 year old daughter!! (By the way, I never told her that I'd make a better president than George W. Bush-- that was her little stab at hyperbole! What I DID say was that I'd make a better president than Richard Nixon--mainly due to the fact that, at this particular time, he's dead and I'm not, which clearly gives me an edge!! This ain't Zombie Nation, y'know!!)

See ya soon!!

March 3rd, 2003

It started with me firmly saying no. It was too cold out, I said, and besides, Monday means it's violin lesson night. What with homework and all, time is short.

It ended with me happily gliding down the hill on my old-fashioned Flexible Flyer while Julie and her pal Deanna used their brand new snowboards to enjoy the thrill of the slopes!!

Okay, okay--so I'm a pushover. My darlin' daughter knows EXACTLY which of my buttons to push, and I've yet to turn down an afternoon of sledding-- so why start now? It's been a tough winter in these parts--the ground's been covered with a blanket of snow continuously since the Christmas Day blizzard! In comparison, last year maybe we had week total of frosty covering. I bet there's been more opportunity for winter sports these last ten weeks than there's been in all of Julie's earlier lifetime. And just when things seemed to be warming up--it rained most of Sunday, with temperatures in the high thirties--the weather made an abrupt about face, and you soon find yourself dealing with a wakeup call of 9 degrees!? Yeah, it was frigid. Who wants to go out in that? I mean, hadn't we had enough sledding already?

Nope. And you know what? That previous day's precipitation soaked itself into the two or three inches of remaining snow, and thanks to the Fahrenheit dip, left a frozen sheen on top. Which, as I'm sure you've surmised by now, worked to our distinct advantage!! Blazing our own trails down the hills behind a local school, I was able to easily double the distance of earlier runs. The two girls had a grand time on their snowboards as well, especially when they abandoned the upright position and instead sat on them, crossing legs, and gaining twice the momentum working as a team!! There's just something magical about feeling the cold rush of air in your face as, time and again, you attempt to make the fastest, the longest, the most perfect run possible!! We've had some good sledding this winter, but folks, this day was the BEST!! And to think, I almost didn't want to go!? Geez, what was I thinking? I hate to say it, but apparently, sometimes Julie DOES know best!?!

I offer up this cozy little vignette to answer some unasked questions you most likely have. Such as, what do you do, Fred, besides the obvious (draw, write, read comics, listen to music, and tube out)? The answer to that is simple--I spend an awful lot of time with my 12-year-old daughter! Julie's a VERY social kid--if she could manage it (and sometimes she DOES), there'd ALWAYS be a friend visiting. As a fellow only child, I can definitely sympathize, though she does take things to extremes on occasion. Sometimes it seems like she's moving 'em in in shifts--the sleepover guest who leaves at noon, followed by an afternoon playmate, and then off to a sleepover at yet a third friend's house!?! It's rare, true, but it's happened. And what if there's no one available? (That's ALSO happened.) Well, that's when ol' dad starts looking pretty darn good. And even when she has companions around, I'm generally called upon to chaperone the outdoor activities (Lynn's arthritis prevents her from partaking in the more strenuous events, unfortunately.) Thus, most all the walking chores (except shopping, thank fully!) fall into my court.

But I really don't mind. Julie has a half dozen or more regulars that she continuously rotates through here on a steady basis, and they're a fine buncha kids, I'm happy to say. Each one is different, and a story onto themselves, but since I don't intend to invade anyone's privacy here at the site, I'll just have to keep the details to myself. Suffice to say, Julie's social life takes up a great deal of my energy, whether I want it to or not. Things get bumpy sometimes, understand. These ARE kids, after all. A trauma one day is no big deal the next. But being home the way I am, I find myself a bit more involved than most dads. Add Julie's natural stubbornness to the mix, and oft times I'm thrown right into the middle of things!? Y'know, like sledding?...

There are times when I'm reluctant to go along with my little sweetie's plans--and there ARE the rare occasions when I can make a "no" stick, though usually that's helped along by untenable circumstances--but whenever I am corralled into events against my will, I just stop and consider the fact that Julie isn't gonna be twelve forever. Maybe I am, but she might actually stand a shot at growing up! So, looking at it that way, you best put any lingering annoyance aside--and truthfully, the kid is more than capable of making me crazy at times!--and just enjoy the moment for what it is. Cuz you just don't know when the next one is gonna be (though around here, probably tomorrow...)

March 2nd, 2003

We have a winner folks, and the winner is ME!!

That's right, gang--I've made a "Buffy" connection!! Randall Lee Kirby--and isn't THAT a splendid name?!?--last seen in our previous installment demonstrating his keen ability to listen to the "Daredevil" flick far better than yours truly, now leaps forward to come to my aid--and also prove he can videotape "Buffy" more efficiently than moi as well!?! All joking aside, thanks Randall!! With the pert little Vampire Slayer's days numbered, I'd hate to miss any of her fabulous final escapades!! You've rescued me from such a dire fate--danke!! And as for the rest of you who contacted me with offers alleviating my distress caused by my careless programming error, allow me to extend my sincere appreciation to each and every one of you!! And please-- stand by!! I'm bound to do something dumb again at any time, and like Blanche Morton, "I rely on the kindness of strangers--but I refuse to meet any of you in a parking garage, late at night, thank you very much!!..."

A fellow I've never actually have met--but sure feel as if I have!--is celebrating a special day this March second. Those of you who've been with me for a while know that I've blatantly modeled my site after POV Online, Mark Evanier's wonderfully entertaining webpage. Well, while thumbing through the most recent COMICS BUYERS GUIDE recently, I noticed the added significance this date has--yes, friends, it's Mark's birthday!! I don't imagine he's making any sort of fuss about it, so let ME: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MARK!! And many more, old man! (Yeah, he's got seniority on me. Barely.) Click over and wish him the best, and take in all the sights of his site while you're at it! It's quite the dazzling destination.

As much as I enjoy my frequent visits to POV Online, the one distressing aspect of regularly checking in is that it seems to be the place where I first encounter the sad news of a passing in the comics' field. Unfortunately, yesterday was no exception, as I learned of the recent death of renowned fan cartoonist Biljo White.

I first entered the world of comics' fandom in 1967, and while that may seem exceedingly early on to most of you, the first glorious rush of activity had already taken place, and most of the leaders of this enchanting little sub-culture had already been determined. To put it somewhat in perspective, the first issue of the legendary ALTER EGO that I was able to buy new was the issue Roy Thomas published as a pro. Fandom already had their innovators, their leaders, their stars. Right up front was Biljo White. Possessor of a charmingly retro drawing style, he also masterminded the prominent BATMANIA zine for many years. His character, The Eye, had to be one of the most distinctive looking super-heroes ever designed, his head totally comprised of one large eye!?! Along with the art of Ronn Foss and Richard "Grass" Green, I admired the work of Biljo White as much as--if not more than--a lot of the pros of the day. Why they weren't doing mainstream comics I had no idea. Perhaps the timing was wrong--quirky, individualistic stylings are more likely to be met with acceptance now than they would've been in the sixties. I mean, the biz was barely willing to let Neal Adams into their exclusive little club back then--these three fannish titans had no chance under those circumstances!?!

And now they're all gone. I briefly corresponded with the amiable Grass Green about 20 years back, but didn't ever have any contact with the other two gentlemen. Ronn Foss left us only a few years back, and Green's passing goes back but months. With Captain Biljo's demise, one can truly--and sadly--say it's the end of an era. The funny thing about comics is that you don't ever have to meet a person to feel you know them through their work. Under those criteria, I knew Biljo White, and like anybody else who was taken by his unique vision, I'm gonna miss him.

Finally, on a totally unrelated note, today marks the inaugural installment of Julie's Say on this site. Having seen me endlessly hovering over the keyboard, my daughter was inspired to sit down at the laptop and offer up her musings for all to see. Take a look if you're at all curious as to what the kids are thinking these days, and remember the opinions expressed are those of Julie Hembeck and not necessarily those of her parents (Though I'm not saying they're necessarily NOT either!!…) And next week she promises poetry!! Just as long as she doesn't try a fresh twist on that one about the fella from Nantucket!?!...

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