Monthly ArchiveDecember 2007



Commentary 31 Dec 2007 10:56 am

What’s your New Year’s resolution?

Here is my final print column of 2007, published Dec. 27.

It may not be on a par with rude questions like “How old are you?” or “When are you two having a baby?” but this time of year, many people pester one another about New Year’s resolutions.

Did you make one? What is it? Why’d you pick that? And later, how’s it going?

For many years, I’ve had a knee-jerk answer: To be more tolerant and less judgmental. It sounds lofty and usually squelches further inquiries, because while the asker ponders tolerant and judgmental, I slip away.

The United States government has a stake in New Year’s resolutions, which is why it has a page about them on its Web site. (The Associated Press insists that “Web site” is two words, with the first capitalized. Maybe my 2008 resolution should be to ignore that dictate, follow the other 99.9 percent of the world, and write it as one word, lowercase.)

The government sinisterly figures if we’re busy chasing our resolutions we’ll have less time to question what it’s doing destroying interrogation tapes, taking one giant step backward by rejecting computer touch-screen voting, and prying into our phone and library records.

Maybe that’s not the reason, but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you, as some paranoid person said right before disappearing in the middle of the night.

Anyway, usa.gov lists 13 popular New Year’s resolutions: Lose weight, pay off debt, save money, get a better job, get fit, eat right, get a better education, drink less alcohol, quit smoking now, reduce stress overall, reduce stress at work, take a trip and volunteer to help others.

All of the above will probably involve spending money, which spurs the economy to grow, which makes everybody happy, and happy people are less likely to question what the government is doing destroying interrogation tapes, taking one giant step backward … well, you know.

The site also offers information on each topic. Under “reduce stress at work,” for example, you can read how the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health created “an interdisciplinary team of researchers and practitioners from industry, labor, and academia” to research and report on job stress and mental health. It’s a potent remedy for insomnia, and remember: A well-rested worker is a less-stressed worker.

Ironically, if you click on “get a better job,” you go to a page that states, “America’s Job Bank ended operations on July 1, 2007.” Really, what else need be said?

Click on “save money” and you connect to a brochure that explains 66 ways to do just that. Most of the tips are pretty good, but a few — like how you can save “hundreds of dollars a year” by comparing gasoline prices at different stations and shopping at lower-priced food stores — inspire a slap to the head and a Homer Simpson style “D’oh!”

A separate link promises “3 Steps to Keep Your Resolutions”: be committed, be prepared for setbacks and track your progress. If you keep clicking on various links, you’ll find the best advice of all, courtesy of the American Psychiatric Association: “The most important point to consider when deciding on your resolutions is to decide if you are truly willing to make the change in your life. Deciding to make the change just to have a resolution will not keep you motivated to attain your goal.”

In other words, change comes from inside, not outside. So all those products promising a slimmer, more sculpted body or that you can stop smoking now are worthless if you don’t want to do it.

Making a change just because the calendar says it’s time or because you worry you won’t have an answer when people ask about your resolutions is a surefire way to fail.

Or maybe that’s just me being less tolerant and more judgmental. Which is OK — I still have four more days. *

* Now that it is New Year’s Eve, I have to make a choice. Maybe this will be the year that I finally make good on my promise (threat?) to write a novel. 

Media 30 Dec 2007 09:38 am

In the New Year’s Zone

 

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The annual New Year’s Twilight Zone marathon begins Monday morning at 8 a.m. on the Sci-Fi Channel and continues through New Year’s Day. Some of my favorite Zone episodes are ones written by Richard Matheson (the “I Am Legend” scribe), including my number-one pick, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring William Shatner. I won’t be able to watch all the Zones, but I plan to hit record on the DVR and save a cache of weirdness to watch later.

Comic books 29 Dec 2007 07:08 am

The Invaders!

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One of the neatest comic book series of the 1970s was The Invaders, whose adventures were set in the early 1940s, shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

The original Invaders were Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and sidekicks Bucky (a mini-Cap) and Toro (a mini-Torch). While all the characters were created by others, it was scripter Roy Thomas and artist Frank Robbins who combined them into a team.

In retrospect, as a kid I probably read more comic books written by Thomas than by any other writer, and for better or worse his hyperbolic style and purplish prose still creep into my own writing.

Robbins had a long and varied career as a comic book and comic strip artist that began in the Great Depression and continued until the late 1970s. He was also an editor and a writer, but I knew him primarily from his art for DC (The Batman and the Shadow) and Marvel (The Invaders and The Human Fly). He had a singular style that wasn’t very popular with my friends who read comics: Like Steve Ditko, Robbins’ figures were weird, all elbows and kneecaps twisted in awkward ways. But the man could draw a story! Despite having to fit five superheroes — and sometimes whole guest teams, like the Freedom Force — and one or two super baddies into each story (not to mention leaving room for mountains of dialogue and captions from Thomas), his panels were never crowded. Readers could always tell what was going on, who was doing what.

Robbins had the misfortune to follow two defining artists on two different titles. He illustrated Batman after Neal Adams and the Shadow after Mike Kaluta. Both Adams and Kaluta are signature artists, and Robbins’ more cartoonish approach made many fans wrinkle their noses. I like his work, though, and especially his run on The Invaders. He died in 1994 after a successful second career as a painter of fine art.

The Invaders story I most remember is the team meeting Union Jack, a British superhero. Together, they battle an evil vampire (is there any other kind?), Baron Blood. The first issue I read was actually the second part of the story, in Invaders #8, and I was doubtless drawn to the comic because of the iconic cover by Jack “King” Kirby (click above to see a bigger version). Thomas did such an effective job of creating a background story for Union Jack as an older hero who comes out of retirement that I assumed he had always been around. Instead, the story was the character’s first appearance.

Earlier this year, Marvel published a full-color trade paperback reprinting the first nine issues of The Invaders, a giant-sized issue that introduced the team and two issues of Marvel Premiere that tie into the title. It’s a fun book, and I hope the company plans to reprint the other issues, too. Word is that the Invaders will return in 2008 in a 12-issue series that brings the team into the present. I don’t know how I feel about the switch to contemporary times, but it will be nice to see the group in action once again, even if the Axis baddies they so often defeated are long since gone.

If Indiana Jones can make a comeback in 2008, why not the Invaders?

Books 28 Dec 2007 06:21 am

Almanac junkie

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Santa was good to me this year, probably better than I deserved. One of the things he dropped down my chimney was a 2008 World Almanac.

I love almanacs, and the World version in particular. I know a lot of the information can be found elsewhere, but I like the convenience of having so much in such a small space. In the opening pages of the new edition, editor C. Alan Joyce extols the virtues of “The Almanac in the Internet Age,” citing both his love of Wikipedia for its democratizing of information (even when, as he notes, some of it is wrong)  and his abiding faith in an almanac for its “filtering through massive quantities of data to bring its readers only the most essential statistics, in readable format.”

Just flipping through at random, I find information on the space race, U.S. population, Pulitzer Prizes, boxing champions by years, and — as they say in marketing — much, much more. It’s a steal, I tell ya, but I’m certain Santa paid a fair retail price.

Books 27 Dec 2007 08:05 am

Following the Golden Compass

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This week, I finished reading “The Golden Compass,” book one in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. The title of the trilogy is a reference to John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” an epic poem published in 1667. Pullman’s books have come under fire recently for atheist leanings and for characters and dialogue that allegedly undermine religious faith. A movie version of “The Golden Compass” is currently bombing in North American theaters.

I didn’t see much evidence here of a plot by Pullman to promote atheism. (Critics say that’s part of his plan: to introduce these concepts sneakily to kids without alarming parents.) What comes through on the page — at least in the first volume — is an thoughtful adventure story about a young girl, Lyra, coming of age in a tumultuous fantasy world that is both similar to and quite different from our own.

Pullman has created a compelling protagonist in Lyra. She is proactive instead of reactive, always finding a way to turn a setback into an advantage. When she is kidnapped by intelligent bears (hey, this is fantasy, after all) and stuck in an orphanage where the children are surgical lab rats, she instantly looks for a way to organize the other children and escape.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the idea of the daemon, a shape-shifting animal representation of one’s soul that — in Pullman’s world — visibly clings to each human character. A daemon changes form often during childhood, but then settles on one animal representation when its owner becomes an adult.

The book was great fun. I don’t know if it’s a classic in the league of, say, “Lord of the Rings” (to which it is sometimes compared), but it offered an original storyline, a likable heroine and enough twists on familiar fantasy themes to make me willing to read the second book, “The Subtle Knife.”

And there, say fundamentalist critics, is where Pullman pulls out all the stops in his anti-religion crusade. I’ll report back what I find once I’ve read it.

Commentary 26 Dec 2007 10:11 am

It’s the little things that matter

Here is my print column from Dec. 20.

The longer you’re married, the more the little things matter.

What I mean by little things is not a dozen roses on Friday night, or greeting your spouse at the door wearing nothing but an apron or writing “I LUV U” on the steamed surface of the bathroom mirror following a hot shower.

No, I mean the little things a spouse does in the beginning of the relationship that are cute and even endearing, but later become bones of contention so big that not even a pack of wolves could gnaw them down to size.

As my wife and I grow older together — and oh, God, the Green Mile is so long — she has found a litany of my quirks that drive her mad. Usually, they surface after she watches “Dr. Phil,” who always takes some poor (usually male) schmuck to the woodshed for something he has done wrong in the relationship.

Lately, two of my peccadilloes have been especially singled out for scorn.

First is my habit of leaving the mailbox lid open. I believe the mail carrier appreciates this gesture because he can tell from down on the sidewalk if we have outgoing mail. If the lid is up, then the box is empty, and if he has nothing to deliver to Casa Schillig that day, he can avoid a 12-step climb and proceed to the next house.

My wife gets angry about this six days a week. She claims it is the reason we didn’t sell our house last year. Never mind this is the worst housing slump in 15 years — it’s all because I left the mailbox lid open.

“It’s like going out in public with your fly down or your shirt untucked,” she asserts.

I admit my theory had an almost fatal setback when my wife, like, actually asked the mail carrier if an upraised lid was helpful. The carrier said no, it wasn’t, and besides a letter carrier would need pretty sharp vision to see from the street that the tiny sliver of black mailbox lid was gaping wide, and besides that, we have had only about three days in our married life when nothing came in the mail.

I maintain this is an aberrant opinion, and that other mail carriers would respond differently. In anticipation of the day when we have mail delivered by somebody who agrees with me, I keep the lid open.

Our second disagreement comes at fast-food drive-up windows, when she upbraids me for staring at the workers as they prepare our order.

My explanation is three-fold. I’m interested in what’s going on in there. I want to make sure nobody is serving up a side order of saliva with my sandwich. And what else am I supposed to look at while I wait?

Besides that, if I’m not watching the window, how do I know my order is finished — when they tap on the glass?

Her answer: Use your peripheral vision.

At least she’s not asking me to adjust the mirrors in the car, but I must confess that in my attempts to please her, I feel like Sneaky Pete or a paranoid schizophrenic when I shoot furtive glances out the driver’s side window to see if somebody is standing there, bag of food at the ready.

The other option is to wait until the guy in line behind me honks his horn and shouts, “Hurry it up, Mac!” I’ll just tell him I’m busy pleasing my wife and he’ll have to wait until I’m finished.

Sometimes, I tell her that if these are my most annoying habits, she is very fortunate. I bet we couldn’t crack auditions for the “Dr. Phil” show with two such petty concerns, or if we did, she would be the envy of every other married woman in America.

After all, I could be leaving the toilet seat up instead of the mailbox lid, or taking a girlfriend instead of my wife to a fast-food restaurant.

She’s not buying it, though, even when, Zorro-like, I render a little “I LUV U Baby” on the steamed-up drive-through window.

Comic books 23 Dec 2007 10:22 am

Another comic book Christmas

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I’m back with what I swear will be my final Christmas comic book post of the season, especially since it’s the only Christmas comic in my collection that I haven’t written about already.

This Christmas with the Super-Heroes, slugged #2 (1989) is very different from the one I wrote about earlier. For one thing, this one is a standard-sized comic. The term “super-hero” has a trademark notice beside it. And the stories are brand new, with no reprints from the golden age.

That last change is the most telling. Gone are the stories of Superman fighting Dr. Grouch to save Santa’s toy shop. In this comic, Superman counsels a dying man who plans to commit suicide alone in a car instead of facing a painful death. Poor reproduction effectively kills what is probably a great art job by Gray Morrow, who illustrates a story about the Bat Cave (yes, the Bat Cave!) at Christmas. Comics great John Byrne writes and pencils a word-free Enemy Ace story with finished art by Andy Kubert. (Byrne also did a no-dialogue Batman story around this same time.)Stories featuring Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern and Deadman round out the issue.

The book is an OK read, if a trifle depressing, in keeping with the “grim and gritty” comics atmosphere so prevalent back then (and still today, I guess). I miss the lighthearted Yuletide tales of earlier years. Do Marvel and DC even bother with Christmas-themed comics anymore? Outside Archie and Disney, I’m not sure any company goes to the trouble, which is a shame.

At least we have our back issues!

Movies 23 Dec 2007 07:28 am

Legend gets thumbs up

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Apocalyptic books and movies are one of my favorite sub-genres, so I was predisposed to like the latest film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend.”

As I wrote earlier, I expected the movie would differ from the book, and it does. Will Smith plays military scientist Robert Neville, one of a small percentage of humans to survive a virulent plague. He and his dog, Sam, are essentially alone in New York City — but as the movie’s tag line makes clear, “the last man on Earth isn’t alone.” That’s where the creepy stuff comes in.

Will Smith is terrific at conveying the melancholy yet determined Neville. The scenes where he walks through a vacant Times Square and drives along the cobwebbed canyons of the city are fantastic, a tribute to how far computer-generated graphics have come in a relatively short time.

The computer-generated baddies aren’t quite so believable, and sometimes pulled me out of the movie, especially in scenes where they swarm in large numbers.

Matheson’s downbeat ending is tweaked significantly, but doesn’t become as rosy as some people feared. A big-budget holiday release would really take a gamble if it featured the book’s conclusion, so I can’t blame the filmmakers too much for their decision here. In the context of the movie, it works.

I give “I Am Legend” a B. It could have been a B+ if not for the CGI problems, but could also have earned a much lower grade if Smith didn’t deliver such an effective performance.

And if you haven’t read the book, why not?

Comic books 21 Dec 2007 07:55 pm

Red-nosed comics

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DC Comics published several Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer comic book treasury editions in the 1970s, including the one above, the company’s second set of stories about Santa’s favorite reindeer. (OK, maybe Santa never called him his favorite, but he put him out front every Christmas, and not just the foggy ones. He was the favorite, all right.)

The stories in the treasury are written and drawn by Sheldon Mayer, who is probably best known as an influential editor during the Golden Age of Comics. He also wrote and illustrated Sugar and Spike, a long-running series about two babies who “talk” to each other in gobbledygook. His Rudolph stories are light-hearted fantasies starring a somewhat effeminate — not that there is anything wrong with that! — reindeer with big doe eyes. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

My last few entries are turning into the 12 Comics of Christmas. I have only one more Yuletide comic book tucked away in the attic somewhere. If I can dig it out, I’ll write about it here. If I can’t find it easily, though, it’ll have to wait until next Christmas, since I haven’t even started shopping for my wife! Yikes!

Comic books 20 Dec 2007 07:31 pm

Christmas with the Super-Heroes

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 ’Tis the season to remember Christmas comic books. The one pictured above (click it to see an enlarged cover) is from 1976. “Christmas with the Super-Heroes” was one of a series of tabloid-sized comic treasuries, about twice the dimensions of today’s comics. These were big books, and young readers could really get caught up in the art and stories.

Between its wraparound cover by the great Curt Swan, this treasury reprints some classic DC comics. The first is a Superman story written by co-creator Jerry Siegel and drawn by Jack Burnley (credits courtesy of the Grand Comics Database Project). Supes has to foil the attempts of “Dr. Grouch and his crony, Mr. Meany” to take over Santa’s workshop. The story is great because it presumes Santa is real and that Superman and Lois Lane will help him; I don’t know if you could sell that concept to more worldly kids today. Ultimately, Santa gives Grouch and Meany gifts. These are the first presents they have ever received, and Santa’s generosity makes the two give up their wicked ways.

The second story is “The Silent Night of the Batman” by Mike Friedrich, Neal Adams and Dick Giordano. Here, the Darknight Detective patrols on a very atypical Christmas Eve in crime-filled Gotham City.

Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, creators of Swamp Thing, contribute a House of Mystery story called “Night Prowler” that blends horror with heartwarming holiday sentiment. It works nicely.

The last two stories are less enjoyable. One is a Golden Age Wonder Woman story, and the other is a Golden Age Sandman story, “Santa Fronts for the Mob,” by the great Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

The issue is rounded out by a word search and a maze (my 8-year-old self did both), two pages of “Sing Along with the Super-Heroes” (Supes sings “Silent Night” and Batman belts out “Jingle Bells”), and an odd page of “Season’s Greetings from the DC Editors” done all in poetry.

I remember this as a fun way to spend a few stray holiday hours when I was a kid. Hey, it was still fun as a nearly 40-year-old kid, too.

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