news from me

April 21, 2002 · 11:45 PM PDT · link

DO I EVEN have to mention that The John Romita Sketch Book is a joy?  I mean, how could a book of John Romita sketches not be a must for any comic book buff?  Especially when they toss in a long, detailed interview.  Mr. Romita (and his son, John, Jr.) were Guests of Honor at the Wondercon just completed and, if not for the fact that I moderated panels and events involving them, I might never have gotten close enough to chat.  That's how crowded they always seemed to be.  It was quite a change from my first memory of John Romita (Senior), which was in the Marvel offices in the Summer of '70.  You would not believe the tiny, cramped workspace the company has provided for him. I was 18 at the time and I literally had twice the space when I sat and drew in my bedroom in my parents' house.

But he was sitting there, putting beautiful work down on paper for what I'd guess was not nearly enough money...and now some of that very work is up in a museum (see earlier item) and he's mobbed by adoring fans and admirers, some of whom are coughing up major coinage for his originals and prints.  And, of course, you're going to buy the book.

I'm back in Los Angeles, by the way, happy to be home.  I had a great time at Wondercon — as ever, one of the friendliest of all conventions — but it's always good to get back.  Today at the con seemed medium-crowded...less than Saturday but more than Friday.  Len Wein and I did a panel for ProCon called, "How Not To Be Taken," which started with us collecting twenty bucks from all attendees.  No, we didn't...but it would have made the point.  The panel mostly consisted of me reviewing our lessons here about Unfinanced Entrepreneurs and illustrating same with more examples.

I think that's about it.  Gotta go unpack...

April 21, 2002 · 11:00 AM PDT · link

THE ABOVE PHOTO is from A Bear For Punishment, a very funny cartoon that was directed by the late, much-admired Chuck Jones.  This is one of the films we plan on showing Wednesday evening at the gala, sure-to-be-packed Evening With Stan Freberg.  Stan did the voice of Junyer Bear (the big kid at right) and he'll tell us all about it and other great animation roles.  Scroll down a ways for further info.

THE SECOND DAY of Wondercon in Oakland was, as expected, packed.  Me, I spent most of the day moderating panels.  First, we had a wonderful event in which we more or less played Whose Line Is It Anyway? except (a) with cartoonists instead of actors, (b) with me in the Drew Carey role and (c) without the "contestants" having most of their responses planned in advance.  Braving the fray were Sergio Aragonés, John Romita, Jr. and Mark Texeira...and it all went very well, and I think we're going to try it again in San Diego.  Then I hosted a Golden Age Panel that consisted of Julius Schwartz, Irwin Hasen, Creig Flessel, Russ Heath and John Romita.  A great panel but I can't think of anything particularly quotable, other than Mr. Flessel's explanation of how he managed to get paid by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the founder of DC Comics.  Flessel went to work for Major Nicholson (as he was called) in 1936, making him darn near the first-ever comic book — as opposed to strip — artist.  The Major was notorious for not paying his bills and Sheldon Mayer, who worked for him at the time, later referred to him as "not only the first man to publish comic books but also the first to stiff an artist for his check."  I asked Flessel if he got paid and he said, "Yes...but taking my drawing board up and working in the office.  If I'd mailed it in like the other guys, I think I'd have had a problem."

My third and final panel of the day was about Humor in Comics, with Sergio, Paul Dini, Pat McGreal, Batton Lash and Bill Morrison.  Again, not much is quotable here, though we seemed to all enjoy a chat about characters' "voices" in comics.  When I used to write Bugs Bunny comic books, I had a theory that readers, when they read such a comic, always read the dialogue in their heads with Mel Blanc inflections.  The folks who read Bill Morrison's Simpsons comic books are almost all, I presume, imagining the voices from the TV series when they read a comic page.  This is a major difference from most super-hero or adventure comics.  Does anyone reading Batman imagine the voice of any actor who has played the role?  I don't think so.  (However, Pat McGreal agreed with me that the Donald Duck of the comic book — which he now writes for Egmont Publications overseas — sounds nothing like the Clarence Nash "duck" voice we all know from the cartoons.)

I'd report more but this is coming to you from a hotel room and Check-Out Time is looming large.  Next and final Wondercon Report in about twelve hours.

April 20, 2002 · 3:00 AM PDT · link

HELLO FROM Oakland, California where the first day of Wondercon 2002 was a good first day.  Nice attendance, but not too crowded.  (Tomorrow, it'll look like a Where's Waldo? puzzle in that hall.)  And a couple of good panels.  First, I got to interview John Romita for an hour, which is always a joy.  Mr. Romita is not only a first-rate talent; he's one of those men who are passionate and articulate about their field — and, above all, sincere.

We got into a discussion of his days as Art Director at Marvel Comics and the problems of saying to one of today's "hot" young artists, "Your drawings are filled with errors." Sadly, this did not always result in compliance or even a recognition of any flaws.  I asked him how many times, in all his years of looking at art samples, he ever knew — instantly — that the applicant was good enough to immediately get work.  I didn't mean how often the kid got work.  The question was how often the samples were so good that the person couldn't help but get hired.  Mr. Romita said it had occurred but three times in all those years: Ron Wilson, Tom Palmer and Dave Gibbons.  Since most who present a portfolio are dead-certain they're of professional caliber, I thought that was an interesting statistic.

Later in the evening, Sergio Aragonés, Paul Dini, Carolyn Kelly and I drove — well, actually, Sergio drove and the rest of us rode — over to San Francisco and the gala event at the Cartoon Art Museum, in honor of the John Romitas (Senior and Junior) and the new Spider-Man art exhibit.  The museum is a wonderful place and, if you like Spidey, a great place to visit while the current show is up.  There, you can see maybe a hundred pages of original art by Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, the Romitas and others who've drawn the wall-crawler over the years.

I have one beef, not just with the event but with a lot of gatherings and parties I attend.  And hey, if you can't bitch on your own website, where can you bitch?  We have this lovely exhibit of artwork that everyone loves (other stuff besides Spider-Man art, by the way), plus the place is full of great and fascinating people, many of them cartoonists and great illustrators.  There's also plenty of food and drink.  All great.  Now, here's the beef part: Why do we need music?  Especially in the form of a live band?

The noise level was oppressive even before they began to play.  Once they commenced, everyone had to shout to engage in any form of conversation with all those interesting attendees, and repeat everything three times.  I am not faulting the quality of the band.  For all I know, their musical skills dwarf the Boston Pops, the London Philharmonic and the Beatles, all in their prime.  But no one can sound too good in a set-up like that, nor can they be heard especially well.  This happens at too many gatherings I attend — perhaps, most.  Someone thinks it's not a party without music and the louder the music, the livelier the party.  If the idea is that people may want to dance, great.  If the idea is that we might want to stop talking to one another and listen to the music...okay, fine.  Let's do that.  But it seems to me that it's usually not necessary and, at times, the people at a party really, really do not like the music that has been provided, ostensibly to give them a merrier time.  Tonight, I think if they'd polled the room, 90+% would have been delighted to send the band packing so that it could be a little less impossible to hear and be heard.

In spite of this, we all had a fine time at the museum.  And I think we all had a fine Day One of the Wondercon.  (We did a "20 Years of Groo" panel too, by the way.)  This is your Oakland Correspondent signing off...

April 18, 2002 · 10:00 AM PDT · link

SCOTT SHAW!, whose name should never be spelled without that exclamation point, has a nice column today about one of the all-time great comic books.  And I can say that without caring if I drive the price of 'em up because I long ago completed my set of Sheldon Mayer's brilliant Scribbly.  Perhaps too subtle for its time — no broad slapstick, no grisly deaths, no nubile teen girls flashing their undies — the comic didn't last long.  While it was around, it caught the fancy of every young boy who wanted to be a cartoonist and who felt he was a bit of a nerd.  "Nerd" was not a term in common usage at the time but the feeling — of not fitting in, of not being good enough to fit in — is as old as the lungfish.  Doubtlessly, there were Cro-Magnon nerds.

Scribbly Jibbet (he's the guy in the middle with the lovesick look) was of the late-forties/early-fifties variety (though he'd first appeared in '36) and we liked him a lot.  His loss from the newsstands cleared space on Mayer's schedule so he could create his long-running, more-successful Sugar & Spike, so that was some consolation.  I think Sugar & Spike is one of the greatest comic books ever done...but I think Scribbly was even better.

A QUOTE from the Associated Press and a couple of questions:

WASHINGTON (AP) - Despite a massive number of tips, rumors and other intelligence, the U.S. military has never had good enough information on Osama bin Laden's whereabouts to mount a mission to go after him, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday.

"We have seen repeated speculation about his possible location," Rumsfeld said. But the pieces of information "haven't been actionable, they haven't been provable, they haven't resulted in our ability to track something down and actually do something about it."

So exactly why have we been bombing where we've been bombing?  Is this the smartest thing for our Defense Secretary to admit?  And why is anyone faulting Democrats for criticizing the war on terrorism when Rumsfeld's out there saying stuff like this?

Put this in another context.  A master criminal has committed and practically confessed to a heinous mass murder.  The police vow to catch him and spend seven months scouring the city, smashing down doors and killing a number of innocent people in the search.  Then the Chief of Police goes on television and says, "We have no idea where he is and we've never really had a solid lead."

How much longer do we think that Police Chief's going to be wearing that badge?

April 18, 2002 · 4:00 AM PDT · link

FOLKS WHO DROP by this site — we just passed 125,000 — seem to have been interested in the stuff about the old game show, What's My Line?  One asked if the program had been "fixed" and, if so, whether it was impacted by the Great Quiz Show Scandals.  The answer is that What's My Line? wasn't rigged in the sense that Dotto or 21 or a few others were manipulated, with contestants being fed the answers to control dramatic tension.  Actually, on the fixed game shows, a more common practice was to rig by asking contestants questions the producers knew they could answer.  In order to get on such a program, you had to take a test to prove you were smart enough to compete.  Sometimes, those tests would be several hundred questions long and, if you scored well and made the show, the producers could ensure your winning — or even knock you off — by asking a question that you'd gotten right or wrong on the test.  There were people who won on "rigged" quiz shows who never realized the fix was in and who could truthfully say, "No, they never gave me any answers."

But the panel shows — like What's My Line?, To Tell the Truth and I've Got A Secret — were never rigged in that way.  There was no point to it.  The appeal of those shows was in the panel's interplay, and no great sums of cash were at stake.  (The most you could win on Line was something like $50 and, at times, they paid each contestant the full amount so that nobody would whine that they'd been swindled out of cash by the frequent anomalies in the gameplay.)  In fact, not only did the producers not give the players the right answers, they frequently gave them the wrong ones.

The practice was called "gambitting" and it was based on the premise that a lot of the fun on such a show was in the panelists naïvely asking questions that had great, unintentional meaning.  For example, questioning a man she didn't know sold beds for a living, Dorothy Kilgallen might ask, "Could Bennett Cerf and I use one of these together?"  Of course, the audience would get hysterical.  Those funny situations occurred naturally but, to make sure they occurred a little more often, the producers would often go to the panelists and suggest an area of errant questioning.  Dorothy Kilgallen, actually, would rarely engage in it.  She wasn't a comedian and was more interested in winning the game than in getting laughs.  But most of the panelists — the comics, especially — would dutifully ask the lady who made girdles, "Could I use your product?"  Or they'd ask a man who sold elephants, "Might I have one of these in my living room?"  They didn't know what the contestant's secret was but they knew that the questioning they'd been told to pursue would get big boffs.

Once you're aware of the practice, it becomes very obvious.  That's especially true on a lesser-known Goodson-Todman show that Game Show Network runs on occasion called, The Name's The Same.  As this one plunged in the ratings, its staff ratcheted up the use of gambits to the point where the show really came off as phony and its panelists look almost stupid at times.

In any case, this went on a lot in the fifties.  When Congress began investigating the game shows for fraud, What's My Line? and other shows cut back on gambits for fear the inquiry would reveal the little sham practice.  But it was done and it was a shameful practice, done back in the days when television shows used to actually lie to us!  Thank heavens they don't do stuff like that, these days.

Oops.  Can't write any more right now.  Have to go watch Wrestling...

April 17, 2002 · 3:00 AM PDT · link

I'M FEELING LIKE Sally, Buddy and Rob these days, and I'm not even writing for Alan Brady.  Between deadlines and dental emergencies (mine and others'), I'm weary...and I still have to pack for the Wondercon this weekend and prep for the gala Evening with Stan Freberg next week.  Further down this page, there are little boxes with info on both events.  Matter of fact, here's the Freberg one.  Meet you on the other side of it.  (By the way: If you call the phone number over at the other site, you'll probably just get a recorded announcement.  They don't seem to be taking reservations.  You'll just have to show up and take your chances.)

America's great satirist/advertising whiz, Stan Freberg, is also one of the all-time great animation voice actors!  We'll be playing rare cartoons in which he performed and quizzing him on what, if anything, he remembers about them.  It all takes place on Wednesday evening, April 24 at the Glendale Central Public Library Auditorium, 222 E. Harvard St. in Glendale.  Click here for further details.

HELLO FROM below the Freberg plug, and I'd like to congratulate my pal Brad Oscar for stepping up from playing Franz Liebkind and understudying Max Bialystock to full-time Bialystock status.  Brad first got involved with the show when he was hired as an understudy/swing.  Even before the show hit Broadway, he'd been upgraded to Nazi Playwright and, when Nathan Lane began having vocal problems, he began playing Max...to rave reaction.

With the departure of Lane, some hoped Brad would get the job full-time but it went instead to British actor Henry Goodman.  Last Sunday, after completing the matinee, Mr. Goodman received a call from his London-based agent, basically telling him to clean out his dressing room.  Though he has a contract that will pay him $15,000 a week for the remainder of his 9-month contract, the producers of The Producers are opting to pay him off and put Brad back in the lead.  There's a moral there about not being impatient...just doing good work and waiting for your reward.  (It doesn't always work that way but it should.)

The sad part, of course, is the unceremonious ouster of Henry Goodman.  I have no inside info on this — just press reports that the producers felt he was departing too much from the Lane model and insisting on remaking the character.  "Too brooding and serious," someone called it.  Perhaps.  But you have to wonder, given the gracelessness of the firing.  Ordinarily, it would have been done on a more gentlemanly basis: Word would be released that Goodman was ill or exhausted or dealing with personal matters.  Brad would have taken over, ostensibly for a week or two...and Goodman would simply not have come back.  It wouldn't have been quite as juicy a news item that way; wouldn't have alerted a ticket-buying public that the mighty juggernaut called The Producers is mortal and that a few seats are going unsold.  Even leaving aside compassion for Mr. Goodman, you'd think there was a better way to make the switch.

So why'd they do it the way they did it?  Beats me.

HER RETIREMENT isn't getting quite the attention it deserves...but then, the last 10 or 20 years she's been performing, Phyllis Diller didn't get the attention she deserved.  She was truly a pioneer of comedy, wedging her way into the Boys' Club, back when the only female employees of a nightclub were singing, dancing or serving drinks.  It was not easy.  Like Joan Rivers and Totie Fields — the first big stars to follow through the doors Phyllis knocked down — she had to resort to the one kind of stand-up comedy than audiences would accept from a woman: Self-deprecation.  All three of them stood on a stage and told you how ugly they were and how their husbands (Fang, Georgie and Edgar) wouldn't have sex with them.

That's what it took and, even if you didn't always find Phyllis Diller funny — even when the outfits and laugh were too much — you had to admire the effort.  As it happens, I found her funny.  I remember a time she was on The Celebrity Game, which was a precursor to Hollywood Squares.  She was asked, "Where does your liver bile duct empty?" and she answered, "I don't care where it empties, so long as it doesn't empty into my pocket."  Her act was a study in solid, punchy punchlines — like the joke about the woman who couldn't get a date so she went on a round-the-world cruise, hoping to meet men.  She returned with rice in her hair and a friend who met her at the dock assumed she'd gotten married.  "No," the lady said.  "A Chinaman threw up on me."  Silly...but Phyllis just fired them at you so fast, you had to go along for the ride.  And she still has it.  Last year at a Tribute to Nanette Fabray, I saw her come out and do 10-15 minutes of killer stand-up that would have had them cheering at any comedy club in the whole English-speaking domain.

We shouldn't have been surprised.  You don't last 40-some-odd years doing stand-up without being funny.  It would be like pitching in the majors for 40 years without a fastball.  Can't be done.  At age 84, she's certainly entitled to retire but I wish the current generation had "rediscovered" her before that happened.

is a collection of vintage (and some new) POV columns about reading and writing comic books.  The illustrations are by Sergio Aragonés and this must-have paperback is coming in July from TwoMorrows Publishing.  It features the work of the proprietor of this website, who writes all sorts of comic books and articles about comics books, as well as silly ad copy.

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