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Monthly Archives: August 2003

The Secret Word…

Coming to DVD September 23: Groucho Marx: You Bet Your Life – The Lost Episodes. Here's a link to order it from Amazon.

This Just In…

Don Rickles on the Jerry Lewis Telethon…

"God bless. It's good to see you. It's been a lot of years. I was sitting down…Malibu with the wife. It's her birthday. In the sun and boom. And they said, 'It's the telethon' and I knew it's for the kids. You know. But for a minute there, I started to spit up. Because I knew this is a shlep trip from Malibu to see you standing there going, 'Help me, help me.' You know, the kids need help but stop. Don't beg. You were a big star once. You've gotta remember who the hell you are. You don't have to sit there and beg for the kids in the wheelchairs. Let 'em live. God will be good to them. But you don't have to stand here and have a fireman sit here for eight hours, and then you sit with the three million dollars and they're walking around going, 'Bustin' my babe,' for the lousy three million. These guys, they give you the money gladly."

What the hell is this man talking about?

Jerry's Back!

Just watched the opening of the 2003 Jerry Lewis Telethon. They had Jerry arriving on a Harley-Davidson with huge training wheels, flanked by a biker honor guard. Actually, it looked like they just drove around the CBS parking lot but it didn't matter. It's Labor Day and Jerry is back where he belongs.

I never know what I think of this annual event but I can't help tuning in. On one hand, a lot of it seems more devoted to hyping the careers of Jerry and his friends than to actually doing good for folks afflicted with muscular dystrophy. On the other hand, some of those performers are wonderful. As I'm typing this, Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers is doing a few steps. Who else is going to put him on a national TV show these days? And everyone I've ever met who has worked on the telethon has had sincerity that was beyond question. That includes Jerry.

There are those who find it horrifying on some levels. They include folks like this guy who feel the funds it makes available for research and care do not outweigh a certain damage done to the dignity of the disabled. There are also those, including folks whose knowledge of the topic I respect, who say that a surprising amount of good is done by the money Mr. Lewis collects. I suspect both views are valid but that the latter has the edge. Ultimately, I suppose it comes down to how you feel about Jerry. I've decided I like him, and I'll be tuning in from time to time over the next twenty-one hours so I guess I like the telethon. I'll report back here if I know for sure.

Not to Alarm Anyone But…

The rubber duckies are coming! Watch out!

Sanderson's Never-Ending Saga

Here's another chapter of Peter Sanderson's report on this year's Comic-Con International in San Diego. [NOTE: Those of you who've come here at Peter's suggestion to read about the Ray Bradbury panel will find that info here.]

Oh, Really? No, O'Reilly…

The conventional wisdom, which is right around 50% of the time, is that Fox News filed its hopeless lawsuit against Al Franken's new book to appease the channel's biggest star, Bill O'Reilly.

So, apart from the fact that O'Reilly seems to despise Al Franken, why did he want the suit filed? A first year law student could have told him that the suit wouldn't survive five minutes in a court of law. (O'Reilly is also a passionate opponent of "frivolous lawsuits" that clog the courts, and has long advocated that folks who file them should have to pay all court costs. Somehow, I don't think Mr. Franken will be receiving a check…)

O'Reilly is more or less in the business of book promotion and publicity. He probably knew that the lawsuit would help usher in The Al Franken Decade (or some shorter period) on the Best Seller List. So why file this suit?

Perhaps the answer can be found in this opinion piece that O'Reilly just wrote. It's about that old interview of Arnold Schwarzenegger that has surfaced to embarrass him. O'Reilly allows that dredging it up is to be expected but doesn't think it's fair. On his show, he turned this topic into a tirade against the Internet and he's right, of course, that a lot of nonsense and slander and gossip does get disseminated via the World Wide Web, but he's wasting his time pointing that out. No one thinks the Internet isn't a repository for inaccurate info, and that's just how it's going to be. All the O'Reilly editorials in the world will do zero to change that.

What he misses is that the Internet has an accurate, archival function, as well. I'm not a regular watcher of Mr. O'Reilly but when I've seen him, it seems like nothing makes him madder than having his own words and seeming contradictions thrown back at him. That's one thing the Internet is great at. The example I cited a moment ago about frivolous lawsuits came off a couple of websites that quoted the Fox News host condemning precisely the kind of action his employer attempted, allegedly at his urging. When O'Reilly yells "shut up," as he often does, it frequently seems to be because someone is attempting to quote something he said and wishes to forget. That was pretty much what his public squabble with Franken was about. Franken was quoting not only times O'Reilly said things that were untrue but times he denied he'd said them at all. For a guy in Bill's line of work, the latter is probably more embarrassing than the former.

O'Reilly is absolutely right that some good people don't choose to stand for public office because they know someone is going to haul out an interview they gave in 1977 or some ancient incident that now seems embarrassing. Somehow, I doubt he'll feel that way the next time Fox News has something damaging to a Democrat, but we'll see. Either way, he's right and the practice is not going away. There will never be a Statute of Limitations on releasing or leaking something damaging about a political opponent…and even if a given politician chooses not to throw mud, the tabloids, as well as websites like Drudge Report and The Smoking Gun, will get it out there. (Actually, with the rise of such sites, politicians don't have to leak smears about their opposition. Whether they like it or not, it will get done for them. Arnold's backers are trying to gain some traction by charging that the release of the old interview was a smear tactic by Democrats. But the actual path of that material into the public discourse is not at all a mystery and could easily have occurred without partisan prodding.)

O'Reilly should know that digging up dirt is here to stay for as long as there's a vote to be won or a buck to be made. What I suspect has him frothing about the Franken book is not that it may be filled with slander, as we define it, but that it's full of old O'Reilly quotes, which one can easily glean from the Internet, Nexis/Lexis and even the Fox News website. And you can't tell a book to "Shut up! Just shut up!" Fox News tried that and it didn't work.

The Play's Not the Thing

"Broadway" is defined as that which plays in a group of approximately 33 theaters in and around the Times Square area in New York. At any given time, about a fifth of those theaters stand empty, waiting for the next occupant. So at any given time, around 25 shows are playing "on Broadway."

After 8/31 when two plays (Enchanted April and the revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night) close, there will be exactly one non-musical play on Broadway — Take Me Out by Richard Greenberg. Several are scheduled to open in October but for a full month, there will be only one show running on Broadway where no one breaks into song.

I'm not sure what this means, if it even means anything. It might mean that Broadway is reaching a crisis stage in its shortage of theaters. There are a lot of shows that would like to go to Broadway but cannot find a place to play. Last year at a party, I heard a veteran of the business side of theater explain about some of the recent wars, with producers knifing one another to get this or that theater. At least one show a few years ago did a kind of reverse on the scam that Bialystock and Bloom work in The Producers. The show in question opened, did poorly and would ordinarily have closed. But its backers knew that several well-financed production companies wanted their theater and that they couldn't get it until the flop show decided to vacate…so they kept it running at a loss. In effect, they said to other producers, "How much will you pay us to close and let you have the theater for your show?" Eventually, some show was desperate enough to open before the cut-off for the Tony Awards that they paid the flop's producers enough to show a nice profit.

I believe the gent also explained that non-musical plays were at a serious disadvantage in competing for theaters. There's simply more potential profit for a theater when it houses a musical, and that may be what's causing them to dominate. Or maybe playwrights just aren't writing plays. Whatever the cause, I'll be interested to see if it keeps up.

Raccoon Nation

Often on this website, I post photos that I take on my premises, usually shooting through a sliding glass door in the breakfast room. I'm in a highly urban area near no forests, no undeveloped areas. It has therefore been rather amazing how many creatures have turned up back there. Here's a convention that I captured on film CompactFlash card last evening…

Gathered around a big dish of cat food the other evening on my back porch the other evening were  six younger raccoon plus an adult, probably the mother. And I find it interesting to presume that the mother is one of the raccoons who can be seen at an earlier age in the earlier photos I posted. My friend Carolyn and I speculate that they live some distance from here and that when they get hungry, they trek on over here. The mother leads them, just as her mother once led her to my cat dish. It's like a rite of passage: "Come on, kids. You're old enough to go to the writer's house and eat Friskies Chef's Blend. Someday, you'll take your children there." And they will too, assuming I don't go broke buying cat food.

By the way, Friskies Chef's Blend is now advertising, "Now! Better Taste!" on its packaging. I have a feeling it's "New Coke" all over again. I really liked the old taste.

Presidential Churchgoing

Several folks, including Cory Strode and Pat O'Neill, remind me that for eight years, Bill and Hillary Clinton had absolutely no trouble going to a Methodist Church not far from the White House. But Ronald Reagan claimed he couldn't go to church because he was a danger to those around him. (To emphasize: I don't care if Reagan went to church. But I think he said a lot of things that were just as disingenuous as Clinton's famous "I did not inhale" and got a free pass for them.)

Chase

I should mention that a past August 28 was also the birthdate of my other mentor in the comic book field, a lovely man named Chase Craig. Chase was the editor-in-chief for Western Publishing's Los Angeles office and as such was responsible for countless Dell and Gold Key Comics, including the Disney and Warner Brothers titles. If you enjoyed the work of Carl Barks or Russ Manning or Harvey Eisenberg or any of the folks who wrote and drew those comics, you were enjoying a comic book edited by Chase Craig. He set and maintained a very high standard, lowering it only to allow me to work for him for a few years there.  As I look over my dubious knowledge of how to write comics, I have to admit that I learned as much from Chase as from Jack.

Chase was born August 28, 1910 and passed away in December of 2001. Western's books rarely carried credits, and I'm not sure Chase's name ever appeared in any of the thousands of fine comics he supervised. But leaving aside his momentary lapse of hiring me, he deserves to be hailed as a very important person in the history of the medium.

Jack

Had we not lost him nine and a half years ago, today would have been the 86th birthday of Jack Kirby. Part of me finds this hard to believe because I still find myself talking about Jack, writing about Jack, thinking about Jack. He remains as powerful an influence on many of us as he did when he was alive and we could go out to his house and talk to him, see him at conventions and so on. Part of this is due to the timeless quality not only of his work but of his wisdom. The former is easier to discuss. Jack's comic book work glowed with a certain kind of organic energy and even when the storyline involved other dimensions or Norse Gods, the emotions displayed had more to do with us as human beings than a lot of so-called "realistic" or "relevant" comics.

In 1975 when Jack returned unhappily to Marvel as writer-artist of a small group of books, his work was generally derided. Some Marvel staffers, in terms they now regret or deny, denounced his work as the ravings of a washed-up, senile old man. Many readers spoke ill of it, and though I loved Jack dearly, I didn't even like it that much and (cringe) said so in print. History is proving us at least partially narrow-minded, as that work is rediscovered, reappraised and even respected more than a lot of material we then thought superior. If Jack were the kind of person to laugh at others' comeuppance, he would have the last chuckle at that.

But I find myself increasingly thinking of Kirby the Man, as opposed to Kirby the Comic Book Creator. Jack's quirky, disconnected way of speaking often made him hard to follow, and therefore made it hard to realize that he was a brilliant man and a much deeper thinker than you had to be to draw super-heroes and super-villains punching each other across the page. I am not knocking those who just drew such scenes without a lot of philosophy and gut behind it; even at that, they were giving their employers a lot more than their employers ever gave them. But Kirby Art came wrapped in a worldview and a sense of humanity, and I increasingly find myself wishing Jack had been granted a venue where he could have done more than Marvel Comics, regardless of what company published him.

I wish someone had gone to Jack and offered him a gig like what Sam Glanzman had in back-up features in the DC war books. Glanzman wrote and drew a series called "The U.S.S. Stevens," which were simple autobiographical tales from his days in World War II. Kirby had wonderful stories of his own wartime experiences. Some were certainly true, some were embellished but all were amazing, and the only times Jack really had the opportunity to commit them to paper, he had to freely adapt them as episodes of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos or The Losers. Even configured for those purposes, they were compelling but I wish they could have starred P.F.C. Jack Kirby instead of those gimmicky, less-real characters.

And I wish someone had commissioned him to do the kind of graphic novels in which his friend (and one-time employer) Will Eisner has excelled. Eisner is still kicking the heinies of much younger men with visual recollections of his childhood and maturation. Kirby did one effort in this vein, a tale called "Street Code" that left his close friends eager for more. But it was only the one story, it was only a few pages, and it was done at a time when his eyesight and drawing hand were impeding his creative output. Too little, too late.

And I wish some publisher had just said to Kirby, "Forget about what the marketplace currently thinks is commercial. Forget about what everyone is expecting when they pick up a Jack Kirby comic. Here's a nice salary. Do the book that takes comics where you see them going in ten or twenty years." That may sound risky but I think it would have been like if you were asked to spend two bucks on a lottery ticket where the odds were only 10-to-1 against winning a million bucks. I wasn't even a publisher then and I still regret that I never put up my own money to try and make that happen.

Most of all, I wish I'd just listened more to what he told me. I remember a lot of it, often verbatim, and I taped or took good notes on a lot of it. But I regret every syllable that is gone forever.

Jack: I don't know if they have a good Internet connection where you are. (It took Marv Wolfman until last week to get high-speed out in Woodland Hills.) But if you're reading this: We miss you. You have no idea how much we miss you. And I think at times, even we don't have any idea how much we miss you.

Recall Stuff

The L.A. Times and CNN are talking about holding a California gubernatorial debate on September 30. The idea is that they would invite any candidate who was at 10% in either the L.A. Times poll or the Field poll, plus Gray Davis. Those two polls are running far enough apart that it's likely Tom McClintock would qualify by at least one. That would probably mean the debate would be Davis, Bustamante, Schwarzenegger and McClintock. So you'd have…

  • Two Democrats who seem to detest one another
  • Two Republicans with wildly-different viewpoints
  • Two guys who want the recall, one who doesn't and one who says he doesn't
  • Three pro-choicers
  • One guy who admits to having used marijuana and hashish, and to participating in public group sex…but is not Larry Flynt
  • Three people with experience in government
  • …and four completely different views of how much fiscal difficulty California is in.

That should be interesting. But what do you want to bet some enterprising station puts together an alternative debate with Gary Coleman, Larry Flynt, Gallagher, that porn actress and a few others? And that Arianna Huffington, Peter Ueberroth and Peter Camejo get shut out of both?

The Mailbag

Here's an e-mail from a Rightwing Vegetarian

…Ronald Reagan was a deeply spiritual man, but not a religious one. Do you understand the difference between the two? Peggy Noonan's book on Reagan details Reagan's spiritual outlook. In fact, Reagan often spoke of the power of PRAYER. I do it all the time (but I called it meditation). And no, I don't go to church either. Does this make me a bad person in your book?

Absolutely not. I think there's a whole raft of areas, including consensual sex between adults and spirituality, where the opinions of others are not only inappropriate but largely worthless. Only you really know what goes on in your heart and soul, and no one else has enough insight to judge it, nor do they really have the right. I don't think going to church makes someone a good person or a bad person, nor does not going to church. On the other hand, if you lecture people about the virtues of going to church and then don't go yourself, or if you don't go and you lie and say you do, you shouldn't be surprised if they question your sincerity and honesty.

Did he go back to the same classroom every week? The classroom would have to be secured for one visit, and anyone planning anything probably wouldn't be able to pull something off from one quick visit. If he goes to the same church every week, the secret service would have to essentially occupy and take over the church in order to secure it. I mean come on, you have to know better.

No, I guess I don't know better. It seems to me that if the Secret Service can make it safe for a President to go into a school full of children, they can make it safe for the President to visit a church. Or conversely, if it's dangerous for church-goers to be around him, it's irresponsible for him to go from classroom to classroom, thereby endangering those kids. It's not like it's a vital necessity for the President of the United States to get his picture taken with third-graders.

If varying the church from week to week would have made it safe, then Reagan could have gone to a different one each Sunday, which is I believe what Jimmy Carter did. And for those weeks when he didn't have time to go somewhere, Carter had a chapel set up in the White House, and another one in the Hickory Lodge at Camp David. The latter got a certain amount of attention during the famous Camp David Summit because both President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel used the chapel for their own religious services. Reagan, who could have snapped his fingers and had an army chaplain delivered to his doorstep to deliver sermons, chose not to. Which is absolutely his right. I think it's absolutely okay that Reagan didn't want to go to church. I don't go to church (for obvious reasons) and haven't set foot in a synagogue since I was ten except for funerals, confirmations and the occasional Purim Festival. Nothing wrong with it.

I just think the story's an example of the kind of false image that was built up about Reagan…one that folks like Peggy Noonan are doing their darnedest to maintain. And of course, I also think any president going to visit a school is a very frivolous waste of an important man's working hours. George W. Bush apparently had time to read stories to kids, but not to read all the intelligence reports on Al Qaeda to himself.

Kirby in the Times

One more thing about this article about Jack Kirby in this morning's New York Times. I forgot to mention one other howling error in my earlier piece on it…

After going to DC Comics, the home of Superman and Batman, Kirby hammered together a new vision: an expanse of planets and the gods that controlled them called the New Universe, which unfolded in the "New Gods," "Forever People" and "Mister Miracle" comics.

No, that was called The Fourth World. "The New Universe" was a flop project at Marvel that Kirby had not a thing to do with.

More Important Stuff

A few hours ago, I posted this little physical game/riddle from Dawna Kaufmann. Why does it work? My friend Alan Light passed it on to a friend of his named Sokol Todi, who's a PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University Of Iowa. Back came this reply…

I think it is due to an area of the brain, close to the primary cortex (the pre-motor area, and the supplementary motor area), which works in part to excite the motor neurons responsible for moving both upper and lower extremities, at the same time. This area is usually responsible for designing and beginning to execute specific movements of different body parts. However, since it may act to design movements of both upper and lower extremities, it could be that it will be in conflict when you are trying to move your hand in one direction, and the foot in another. With long practice, and usually it works best earlier in life, these neurons in the primary cortex will eventually learn to divide the operation of the extremities into different parts such that it can be easier to move them completely separately.

You got that, everyone? Let's all start training those primary cortex neurons. No telling how it'll come in handy.