Mr. Sandman's Sandbox

The musings of a Deaf Californian on life, politics, religion, sex, and other unmentionables. This blog is not guaranteed to lead to bon mots appropriate for dinner-table conversation; make of it what you will.

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

I'm not sure I could ever afford to live there, but San Francisco is one of my favorite cities. There's always something to see or do in town, there's tons of places to visit again and again, there are beautiful views from tons of spots in town, it's very walkable, and oh, yeah... I got married there. *grin* Probably the best reason of all!

These days San Francisco is gearing up for the 100th anniversary of the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, and as such, there are articles periodically highlighting or anticipating this event. At the end of the year, in December 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle profiled a 109-year-old woman, Lucile (Kilhofer) Meyer, who is one of the few survivors who can remember the days of April, 1906. Although she was not in the city proper at the time, but in nearby San Mateo, she definitely knew something was going on:
Just before dawn, she and the other little girls were awakened by the great earthquake, knocked out of bed. "I could see the swinging of the lamps, back and forth," she said... [L]ater in the day, the people in San Mateo saw San Francisco burning. "You could see all the smoke from the city," she said, "You could see bits of ashes coming down from the sky."
Needless to say, it's not an experience she wishes to repeat anytime soon. "Every time we get a little quake," she said, "I get shaky."

It's a pretty common sentiment for anyone who has survived a huge natural disaster, such as an earthquake, a flood, or a hurricane. Most of my family and some of my friends have experienced large earthquakes, ranging from the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake to the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake to the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. I even have a couple of relatives who survived 1906, although they are now long gone. It's part and parcel of being in California. While we Californians are used to the possibility of earthquakes the way people along the Southeast and Gulf Coasts are used to the possibility of hurricanes, it's not necessarily something to celebrate (despite the Halloween costumes I saw in West Hollywood, I haven't seen too much evidence of Katrina parties!). Yet come next month, there'll be quite a few ceremonies, commemorations, and other extravaganzas in honor (or in memory?) of April 18, 1906 and the days that followed. Fortunately, some of the events will offer opportunities for public education about earthquake safety, so that's good. The clearinghouse for festivities is the 1906 Earthquake Centennial Alliance-- while there will be remembrances in places such as Santa Rosa, where the downtown district was completely destroyed, and had the most deaths per capita, most of the events will be in San Francisco proper. The S.F. Fire Department, for one, is organizing a costume ball with participants requested to dress in turn-of-the-century attire, a safety expo, and a parade.

There are other aspects of the times that remain in the public consciousness as well. Metal detector hobbyists have run across refuse from former landfills and sites that existed in 1906, turning up brass fire badges, tokens, and other personal items that have been long forgotten in the decades since. I'm sure in the weeks to come, as April 18, 2006 approaches, we'll be hearing more, whether in newspaper articles, online pieces, magazine layouts, TV shows, and the like.

I'm sure during the week, people will be singing or listening such classics as "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" ("to be where little cable cars/climb halfway to the stars...") and "San Francisco" ("San Francisco, let me beat my feet/Up and down Market Street..."), both of which are official city songs. While I'm sure Tony Bennett will make an appearance one way or another, given the festive planning to remember such a tragedy, it might make more sense to invite Jerry Lee Lewis, who could give a rousing rendition of "A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Just think about it-- tons of people at the top of their lungs, singing, "I said shake it baby shake it/ I said shake baby shake/Come on over whole lot of shakin' goin' on..."

Come April 18 next month, there certainly will be a whole lotta shakin' goin' on in San Francisco.

Friday, March 17, 2006


This year, St. Patrick's falls on a Friday, so I'm sure there'll be more than the usual number of folks hitting the bars, swilling green beer and tankards of Guinness. Not me-- as I explained last year, getting plastered isn't part of my St. Patrick's Day tradition. It strikes me as funny that a Irish religious holiday is now rapidly becoming a secular holiday celebrated worldwide. Not only that, but there's no other holiday like it: we certainly don't have a day of the year where we pretend we're Russian, or Japanese, or Kenyan. Yet on March 17, everyone's Irish for a day.

We're both still kind of worn out, and it's intermittently raining, so we've opted for a quiet evening at home. As I speak, the corned beef is being cooked, and in a short while, I'll head into the kitchen and get started on the potatoes and veggies. A traditional Irish-American dinner, of course; we had a more traditional Irish meal a few weeks ago in San Diego, at The Field-- Irish beer matched with pub grub (I opted for bangers and champ). Our dessert will be an Irish tea cake, accompanied by "In the Name of the Father," this year's selection for an Irish/Irish-themed movie. At some point, we'll run out of unseen movies, and we'll start watching movies again for a second (or third!) time. I've seen this particular movie before, but my walking partner hasn't, so it'll do.

Whether you're Irish, of Irish ancestry, or faux Irish, a Happy St. Patrick's Day to you! Sláinte! Erin Go Bragh!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Justice Isn't Blind

One thing that really pisses me off about right-wing extremists in this country is their willingness to listen to (and act upon the words of) irresponsible Republican politicians, who say things that no mature adult should ever say. One such hack is Tom DeLay, who stated last year during the whole Terri Schiavo debacle that federal judges should "answer for their behavior." DeLay later tried to finesse his comments in an apology of sorts, saying that his statement was "inartful." About the same time, we had another Texas politician (anyone see a trend here?), John Cornyn, spout off and insinuate that controversial judicial decisions lead to violence against judges. While he tried to hedge his statement by adding that such violence was "certainly without justification," his comments weren't aimed at condemning violence or admonishing such behavior, but merely providing a rationale-- or in other words, justification.

Words are bad enough-- you may think names may not hurt judges who try all sorts of cases daily-- but now it's coming down to sticks and stones, which definitely hurt. Last year, about this time, a federal judge in Chicago came home to find her husband and mother killed; this same judge had had a contract out on her thanks to a white supremacist she held in contempt of court. While this was happening in Chicago, in Atlanta a judge was killed in the courtroom by a defendant before him on rape charges. Just a month after all this, we have so-called "responsible" politicians like DeLay and Cornyn essentially saying that judges better watch out? It's one thing to disagree with a particular ruling, but to completely politicize attacks on the judiciary to the point that veiled threats are made? If you don't think that likely, look at Ann Coulter's even more irresponsible "joke" in January about poisoning Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. How responsible Republicans and conservatives can ignore her and pretend that there's nothing wrong with such a statement is beyond me. If anything happens to Stevens, Coulter should be held responsible.

Contrary to the old adage, judges aren't blind to what's happening. Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor spoke at Georgetown University last week and warned that attacks on the judiciary threatened the independence of judges and ultimately, could weaken constitutional freedoms that we so far take for granted. O'Connor didn't name them, but she took issue with both DeLay and Cornyn over their "inartful" commentaries on the judiciary.

She's not the only one-- yesterday, Justice Ginsburg revealed that both she and O'Connor have received death threats via the internet. The specific statement was this:

According to Ginsburg, someone in a Web site chat room wrote: "Okay commandoes, here is your first patriotic assignment ... an easy one. Supreme Court Justices Ginsburg and O'Connor have publicly stated that they use (foreign) laws and rulings to decide how to rule on American cases. This is a huge threat to our Republic and Constitutional freedom. ...If you are what you say you are, and NOT armchair patriots, then those two justices will not live another week."

Gee, how much more specific of a threat do you think that could be?

No one is going to agree totally with all the decisions a judge makes-- no one is going to fully agree with everything Congress does, or the Executive Branch does, either. But does that mean that because I don't like Smirk and Scowl that I should rush out, as a "patriot," and assassinate them? Of course not. So why is it okay for some right-winger to get away with saying stuff like that? It shouldn't be. Republicans have been big babies lately about judicial decisions, labeling rulings they don't like the work of "activist judges." While I don't begrudge them the right to dislike a decision, I don't approve of the attacks and politicization that occurs. By creating such labels and making such statements, judges in this country are being told they are no longer respected, and by association, the laws of this country as well. If we no longer respect our laws, then what, really, do we have left?

So while I loathe Scumlia and Uncle Clarence, you won't find me making incendiary statements. Sure, I disagree with just about everything they've done-- while I don't respect them individually, I do respect the office they hold as judges. I respect the laws of this country; if I don't like a law, then I have a responsibility to myself and to the country to register my disapproval through my elected representatives, and if I so wish, to work to overturn or amend such laws. But I, and everyone else, have no right to threaten or undermine a judge or judges. Anyone who does, whether their name is DeLay, or Cornyn, or Coulter, or Smith, or Jones, should be held responsible. Justice may be blind in the courtroom, but it certainly isn't blind when it comes to the safety of judges.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

As the Bookworm Turns

I read a fair number of blogs, along with my daily news intake-- most of them are personal blogs written by friends, acquaintances, and the like. Most are by other deaf people. A few are political blogs, or links I find in news stories. One of my daily must-reads, as I've previously mentioned, is "Funny the World." For today's entry, there's a book meme-- I enjoyed it enough that I'm going to do the same questions. So if you want to learn a bit more about me, keep reading. If you find this kind of stuff boring, see you next time. *grin*

Are you a novel or short story or comic or magazine reader or not a reader?
That depends largely on what I'm in the mood to read at the moment. As anyone who's visited my home knows, I enjoy comics; not so much the muscle-bound heroes type of stories, but more in the vein of graphic novels, anthologies, and the like. I read a lot of history and other non-fiction works. From time to time I enjoy short stories. I read lots of novels when I was younger, but thanks to my bookworm co-habitant, I have picked up quite a few recently published novels lately, and have thus added some new favorites/authors to my list. I do tend to save my heavy reading for during the day, and read something light before bed.

What genre of books do you read? Why?

As I said above, I read quite a variety of stuff-- I'd say a better question would be, "What genre of books do you NOT read?" I don't tend to read horror works, sci-fi or fantasy books (that is, the type that have pictures of half-naked warriors and sultry temptresses on the cover), or true crime paperbacks. No romances or other fluffy Barbara Cartland type potboilers either. I'm not generally into the type of thrillers you find at the drugstore either, although I have read a couple of Ludlum books and found them entertaining. I enjoy classic novels, supernatural stories, time travel, historical fiction, and popular history/culture-type books. From time to time I'll check out a biography, or if I get fascinated about a certain topic, I'll read several books on the subject. But if a book bores me or doesn't grab my attention, I don't feel compelled to read it. As sad as it may be, my life is finite, which means I can't and don't want to read everything. It sometimes boggles my mind thinking about how many books there are and what I might never have the opportunity to read.

Name five of your favorite books.

Hm... this question isn't the easiest! Well, let's start with what I have listed in my profile:

To Kill A Mockingbird. Definitely a classic, and one most of my readers have probably already read, most likely in high school English. If you haven't read it yet, go read it (and don't cheat by watching Gregory Peck's outstanding work in the movie of the same name-- there's a lot left out of the flick, believe me!). I probably first read this sometime in junior high, and have read it several times since. It's one of those books I get something new out of each time I read it.

Addie Pray. This one is more familiarly known as "Paper Moon," which is the title the book's been republished under ever since it was adapted into the movie. It's about a girl who travels throughout the Depression South with a con man who may or may not be her father. The movie was good, sure, and Tatum O'Neal won an Oscar for her performance, but the screenwriters only adapted the first part of the book for the script. The second half of the book focuses on the duo's attempt to play out a con on a elderly New Orleans widow. Great stuff- worth a read, IMHO.

Time and Again. This one is by one of my favorite authors, Jack Finney. If you have any interest in time travel, read it. It's the story of a New Yorker who, as part of a government project, travels back in time to 1880's New York. It's a time travel story first and foremost, but Finney does such a good job with the little details, it almost seems like a historical novel as well. Definitely worth checking out from the library.

This isn't one book, but a series of books. The Sandman series, starting with Preludes and Nocturnes and ending with Endless Nights, by Neil Gaiman, is one of the few must-read comic book recommendations I'd make to book lovers everywhere. Gaiman took a minor DC Comics character and reworked him into an immortal, a god of sorts who maintains control over dreams and dreaming. On one level it's a comic book, sure; but Gaiman weaves literature, history, mythology, fantasy, horror, and so much more into his stories that they transcend mere comic book fare. If you're curious, go get the first book-- or take a look at one of the better websites out there devoted to the character and the books, The Wake. Needless to say, I have all the books, and re-read them from time to time.

A lot of times when I'm asked this type of question, I don't have reams of favorites-- if I go through a bookstore's fiction section alphabetically, I can pull off the shelves tons of recommendations or books that I liked. One book I read a few years ago, while I can't say it's definitively one of my all-time top five, is definitely up there. Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits is about the life of Esteban Trueba, but it is also a story of the women in his family and life, and about Chile during the 20th century. Since reading this, I've read some of Allende's other books. If you like South American literature (and I do!), check it out.

What was the last book you read or are currently reading? What is it about?

I'm currently shuttling between two books: Kenneth C. Davis' Don't Know Much About Mythology (if you've read any of his previous works, you know how this one is formatted!). I saw it on the new books shelf at the library and thought I'd check it out. I'm also re-reading The Earth Shook, The Sky Burned, by William Bronson. It's a classic non-fiction account of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906.

What was the last book you bought?

*laugh* The last *four* books I bought are gifts for family members-- March is a big birthday month in my family. As far as I know, no one in the immediate family (other than my lovely spouse) reads this blog, so I'll go ahead and list the four books here:

Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium, by Heer and Worcester.
Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire, by Roy Moxham.
Buzzwords: A Scientist Muses on Sex, Bugs, and Rock N Roll, by May Berenbaum.
Lewis and Clark's Green World: The Expedition and its Plants, by Earle and Reveal.

Who is your favorite writer? Why?

I don't have one outstanding, all-time favorite, but rather several. One is Jack Finney, who has written several short stories and a couple of books (including Time and Again) on time travel. Definitely one of my favorite genres. Another is Larry McMurtry, who is arguably one of our best contemporary Western writers; he'll definitely join the canon of hallowed writers, alongside authors such as Wallace Stegner. I love Lonesome Dove and its companion books, but he's written other good stuff too, such as Terms of Endearment. Growing up, John Steinbeck was a favorite, and still is. I've gotten into Latin American literature in the past several years, and Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are two authors who I return to frequently.

Is there a book that has influenced your life in some great manner? How?

I can't say that there is some book out there that changed my life, or that I can look back and say it was a turning point. I know Lonesome Dove was one of the reasons I became interested in studying the American West, but it wasn't *the* sole reason. But no-- no self-help book, no classic novel, no tome that irrevocably changed me forever.

Name five books that are particularly meaningful for you.

Again, I'm not sure I can come up with five books-- as I said above, Lonesome Dove was particularly meaningful because it sparked within me a desire to learn more about the history of the American West. Jonathan Spence's God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan was an influential book for me, because it showed me that a scholarly tome on history doesn't have to be dry: Spence pulls off the trick of being able to write a book that is accessible to both academia and the general public. It's not an easy feat to do!

Deaf President Now!: The 1988 Revolution at Gallaudet University by John Christiansen and Sharon Barnartt is not only important to me because I was present at DPN, but also because I'm smack dab in the center of the picture on page 123. *big grin*

An unpublished book is also meaningful to me as well-- my MA thesis. Very few people may ever see it, let alone read it, but I wrote it, and it's proof not only that I can write a book-length manuscript, but that I earned an MA. No matter what happens, I'll always have that.

There is one book, though, that profoundly affected me when I read it, and I still do think of it occasionally. Joanne Greenberg's other books, such as I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and In This Sign, may be better known, but it's Of Such Small Differences that touched me. In this particular book, Greenberg explores the life of 25-year-old John Moon, a deaf-blind man who has a relationship with a hearing, sighted woman. While the book has the same melancholy tone in places that In This Sign does, it was able to convey what life as a deaf-blind person must be like. I'm already deaf, so I know what that is all about, but being both deaf and blind is probably my greatest fear. I know achieving a life as a deaf-blind person is possible, as I've seen deaf-blind individuals in the community make contributions where possible, but it's still something I wouldn't want to have to experience. Yet the book allowed me to sort of peek into what it must be like, and reaffirms that doing more than just existing can happen, as long as the individual is willing to do so.

Wow- that's five books. Not too bad...

Three books you are dying to read but just haven't yet.

Hm... I keep a small book with a list of books that I'd like to read in it, so there's more than three. One book I definitely want to read is the final book in the Harry Potter series-- I know, no one has read it yet, but I am eagerly awaiting it to find out just what happens! While I'm not "dying" to read it, I do want to read Novel History by Mark Carnes. It's a discussion between historians and novelists about historical fiction. A third book, one that we actually have here at home, is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. A lot of people I've talked to lately have read it and said it was good, so I know I'm quite curious about it.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Golden Boy

We just got home from a good friend's place, where we cocooned in a comfortable living room watching this year's edition of the Oscars. As the statuettes were handed out and the usual blathering of "I'd like to thank so-and-so, who is no longer with us, but is definitely watching from heaven, and gave me an $80 bus ticket to Hollywood when I was young and naive, and is the person I'm thanking now for kicking me out of the house so that I can be here today to get this lovely hunk of metal" started, I thought about the predictions I made a few weeks ago. How did I fare?

Let's see:

In the best actor category, I wanted David Straithairn, and I still think he would have been a good choice. But as me, myself, and everyone else on the planet predicted, Phillip Seymour Hoffman walked off with an Oscar for "Capote." Chalk up one on my scoreboard.

Matt Dillon didn't win for Best Supporting Actor, which I'm still disappointed about. But he wasn't my prediction, which was Paul Giamatti. However, I struck out with that, as George Clooney copped a win for "Syriana." In retrospect, he was probably a smarter bet, since he was also up for honors for "Good Night, and Good Luck," which obviously wasn't gonna win, and he was a competitor in three categories, so it seemed a safe bet the Academy was handing him the Supporting Actor category. Ah, well. Score is now 1-1.

As everyone who is aware in any way about movies, the Oscars, and other whatnot from the past year, Reese Witherspoon won her first Oscar-- we saw "Walk the Line" on DVD just the other day, and she definitely did a great job. I'll have to wait and see all the performances of all five nominees first before I can say she deserved it, but her performance isn't one I'd say wasn't Oscar-worthy. The tally stands at 2-1.

I wasn't certain about Best Supporting Actress-- but I did mention Rachel Weisz, and she did win for "The Constant Gardener." Hm... ok, I'll give myself partial credit, and say 2.5-1.5. How's that?

Ang Lee got the nod for "Brokeback Mountain," but "Crash" concluded the evening by taking Best Picture. So with that surprising split, it's now 3.5-2.5. Add in "Wallace & Gromit" for Best Animated Picture, and I ended the evening at 4.5-2.5. Not too shabby, but could be better.

"Crash" came out early enough that it was on DVD a while back, and we both watched it, partly due to the buzz, partly due to the fact that it's set in L.A. I'd say that overall it was a pretty good film-- not necessarily top of the line quality, but it's a lot more watchable and memorable than most of the dreck that came out in the past year. Is it a film that will hold up 30 years from now? I don't know. What I can say is that the L.A. it depicts is unrealistic in some ways. While I can definitely buy the shabby treatment of the Mexican maid by the Brentwood housewife, some of the other stuff was over the top. I've been in different parts of L.A., and while I might get some stares if I strolled down the streets of Compton in broad daylight, and I'd definitely run the risk of getting in trouble if I drove down Crenshaw Boulevard south of the Santa Monica Freeway anytime after dusk, I disagree that L.A. is some kind of seething cauldron of hate, racism, and daily misunderstandings. That isn't to say that I think this town is an oasis, a true melting pot; I'd say the truth is somewhere in between. Sure, there's racism, there are incidents, there are still occasional carjackings and robberies and the like. But on the whole, it's a cool kind of town. Take my own neighborhood: I live in a tony part of town, but just around the corner is a Orthodox Sephardic synagogue, a Mormon temple, a senior citizen's center, a Persian shopping district, two Mexican restaurants, several Indian eateries, and much more. We have a black neighbor upstairs, childless couples, yuppies, families, little old ladies, and all kinds of people. Drive a little ways away, you'll find Korean grocers, Greek haberdashers, Jewish delis, and upscale clothing stores all on a single city block, all next to each other. I've walked around East L.A. with no problems, and the most penetrating stare I've gotten has been from a five-year-old curious about what I'm saying with my hands. *grin*

So if and when you watch "Crash," and wonder why it got the golden boy this year, focus on its ensemble cast, its outstanding performances both individually and as a group, and the overall dialogue, which is a cut above most movies nowadays. Ignore the outlandish histrionics of the overall plot, which posits that we are all just waiting to collide in hateful outbursts, any minute now.

Friday, March 03, 2006

A Black Day

Today is a black day in our country's history. The Senate has approved the renewal of the Patriot Act, with very few changes. Of course, Smirk will sign off on this, and the attack on our Constitution and its liberties will continue unimpeded. The original Patriot Act in 2001 had such lovely things in it. The current renewal keeps most of these items intact.

As Declan McCullagh pointed out, some such highlights of the 2001 Patriot Act include:

  • Police can sneak into someone's house or office, search the contents, and leave without ever telling the owner. This would be supervised by a court, and the notification of the surrepititous search "may be delayed indefinitely (Section 213)
  • Any U.S. attorney or state attorney general can order the installation of the FBI's Carnivore surveillance system and record addresses of web pages visited and e-mail correspondents -- without going to a judge. Previously, there were stiffer legal restrictions on Carnivore and other internet surveillance techniques. (Section 216)
There is and was more, of course. Enough people protested some of the more outrageous provisions, such as the accessing of library records, that when renewal came up, Congress "revisited" the Patriot Act. I say "revisited" because with the exception of a few people like Senator Russ Feingold and Congressman John Conyers, there wasn't a huge overhaul of the bill. As Conyers points out:

First, the bill is dangerous because it makes it practically impossible to challenge the gag orders that comes with a secretive 215 orders. It would not only make the recipient wait at least one full year before challenging a gag order, it deems government certifications concerning possible harm to national security to be "conclusive." This is far worse than current law under which the federal courts have rejected numerous certifications which failed to provide sufficient facts to justify the gag order.

Second, the bill operates as a mere fig leaf, covering over serious problems in the underlying conference report. For example, the bill pretends to protect libraries from receiving National Security Letters, but then revokes that protection if the library offers internet access, which nearly every library in the country does. The bill also does nothing to prevent the government from using security letters to obtain confidential information having nothing to do with terrorism; nothing to protect secret physical searches of homes and offices; and nothing to rein in abusive roving wiretap orders.

Third, this bill should not be on the suspension calendar which is ordinarily reserved for non-controversial, consensus legislation. This bill was written by a group of four Senators, with input only from the Administration. There was no consultation with the Conference Committee, no consultation with the Senate, and certainly no consultation with the House. Despite the lack of process, despite the absence of hearings or any committee debate, we are being asked to approve this bill on a take it or leave it basis. We have no opportunity to offer a single amendment on this issue of civil rights and liberties which is so important to our Democracy.

I don't know about you, but I don't like the Patriot Act, in either of its incarnations. I can tolerate differing opinions, approaches, and solutions to a lot of political issues, but where I draw the line is anything concerning civil liberties. To me, that's what this country is all about.

The fact that much of the Patriot Act is now permanent suggests to me that this country is going to take a sharp turn from its origins and turn down another path scares me. I was and am an American, but is the America I grew up in still there?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Comics as Art

Despite the fact that I don't have tons of boxes sitting around, posters or statues gracing my walls and shelves, and I don't wear t-shirts emblazoned with men on steroids in tights, I am admittedly a comic book geek. These days I don't really collect comics anymore, and I have mulled over in my mind possibly selling some or all of my collection. I still enjoy comic books and comic strips though, and have quite a few books, anthologies, and histories of comics, both in strip and book form.

For a long time, comics were something you bought, initially for a dime, then 12 cents, 20, 25, and upwards-- now you can head down to the drugstore or your comics specialty shop and plunk down close to $2 for a book. They were long considered the province of young children, perhaps teens, and weren't bought, collected, or hoarded beyond junior high-- or so people thought. Most of the time they ended up in the garbage, either as part of cleaning out one's childhood, or as part of Mom's cleaning out of one's childhood (my own mother threw out my collection of Heavy Metal magazines from the 1970's-- I could probably pay down part of my debt with what some issues are worth now!). Sometime in the late 1960's and early 1970's, comics started to develop a more serious reputation, as conventions, conferences, and the like started to be held. By the time my friends and I started developing a pile of more than five comics to keep, comic-cons were big deals, collectors were scouring attics, basements, thrift shops, and flea markets everywhere in search of old and rare issues. I had a lot of fun at the time collecting and trading comics-- we even had a teacher who collected comics, and one day he said we could bring our collections to school and he'd bring his. Turned out he was a serious collector, and we were able to see (and briefly hold!) Whiz Comics #2-- better known to serious aficionados as the exact issue that introduced Captain Marvel to the world (DC Comics now owns him, and he's more popularly known as "Shazam"). He was a pretty cool teacher- probably retired by now. I sometimes wonder what happened to him.

But I digress-- by the mid 1980's, there seemed to be a comic store everywhere, and tons of people trying to cash in on the growing collectability of comics. It got to the point where both DC and Marvel ran up high print counts of all of their titles, and over-saturated the market.

As all interests and fads do, things cooled down a bit, a lot of little shopkeepers went bankrupt, both DC and Marvel faced severe financial difficulties of their own, and comic books and comic collecting veered down a new path. About this time, you had a resurgence of interest in old comic strips, and companies like Denis Kitchen's Kitchen Sink Press were reprinting in anthologies and volumes old strips like "Little Orphan Annie," "Lil' Abner," "Terry and the Pirates," and the like. While Kitchen Sink Press isn't really around anymore, the trend has continued unabated in recent years, and both DC and Marvel have gotten into the act, reprinting dozens of their titles in the Archives and Masterworks series. A couple museums opened here and there; one in San Francisco, the Cartoon Art Museum, and one currently in Boca Raton, Florida (but will be relocating to the Empire State Building in NYC in 2007), the National Cartoon Museum (previously known as the International Museum of Cartoon Art). I've visited the San Francisco one, but never had a chance to get to Boca. Perhaps I'll have better luck in New York a year or two down the road. Cartoons and comics have also found a resurgence, through such vehicles as DC's Vertigo comics line, and a number of graphic novels, some on historical or serious topics. For instance, Art Spiegelman's "Maus," a graphic novel re-telling of his parents' experiences in the Holocaust, won a special Pulitzer Prize. Another example is Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis," a fascinating autobiographical work of a young girl growing up in revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iran. Somehow, these types of books aren't exactly for the pre-teen set; today's comics aren't the Harvey and Dell comics of yesteryear.

But this year, cartoons and comics have hit the big time. The first is an exhibit here in L.A., mounted by both the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, titled "Masters of American Comics." It opened in November, but we hadn't gone yet due to the absence of one-half of our duo, plus the dreaded Bar. We finally went today, heading first to the Hammer, and then to MOCA, to take advantage of free admission (this isn't DC, you know). One of the co-curators is Brian Walker, the son of cartoonist Mort Walker, so we knew it was going to be an interesting exhibit. We weren't disappointed. The curators chose to focus on a select group of top artists (always a subjective call!), rather than an overview of comics and comic strip history (instead letting the books in the museum bookstores do that for them). While this approach worked on one level, I still think having a broader overview would have helped (especially for viewers who were coming to comics for the first time or after a long break). There were introductory sections giving a general introduction to the origins of comic strips/comics, but not enough that people could see how it influenced American pop culture. Still, the Hammer and MOCA are first and foremost art museums, so that was probably appropos. As it is, having comic art displayed as art is definitely a departure from the norm (which is to treat comics/comic strips as pop culture/fads), so I think the show was successful from that standpoint. The artists chosen for the Hammer segment represented comic strips and cartooning from roughly 1900 to 1950, with Charles Schulz bringing up the rear ("Peanuts"ran in its entirety post-1950, but Schulz's influences were definitely pre-1950). Each artist had a brief biographical sketch, and then examples of strips they worked on, usually the sole or most famous work they'd done. We agreed with most of the choices: Winsor McCay ("Little Nemo in Slumberland"), George Herriman ("Krazy Kat"), Frank King ("Gasoline Alley"), Chester Gould ("Dick Tracy") and Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"). The others were interesting, but could have been replaced by other examples. In this group are Lyonel Feininger ("The Kin-der-Kids"), E.C. Segar ("Thimble Theatre," which featured Popeye), and Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates"). While Feininger's work was interesting, I felt someone like R.F. Outcault ("The Yellow Kid" and "Buster Brown") would have been a better choice as an example of an influential cartoonist at the dawn of comic strips. A similar strip to "The Kin-der-Kids" was "The Katzenjammer Kids" by Rudolph Dirks, and also would have been a good artist to profile. But as I said, these things are subjective... Part of the reason for choosing the artists was to highlight innovations or techniques they introduced to the field, but it was sometimes difficult to see exactly what these changes were, since the strips were actual pre-publication strips or newspaper sheets carefully saved over the years and now owned by collectors or actual cartoonists themselves (Patrick McDonnell, the creator of "Mutts," loaned quite a few strips from his personal collection for the show). I appreciated knowing that Gould was one of the first to introduce violence as a consistent theme in the comics, and things like that, but it would have helped to have had a fascimile made and then had a circle, arrow, or other indicator printed on top to show how the artwork changed. In other words, we were seeing the actual work of the comic artists themselves, but we weren't always seeing the link between their art and how it changed or influenced comic art overall.

The second half of the show was at MOCA in downtown Los Angeles, a good ten miles or so from the Hammer, which is in Westwood by UCLA. The MOCA display focused more on comic book artists and more recent artists from the second half of the twentieth century. The featured artists were Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, and Chris Ware. With the exception of Panter, I felt these were pretty good choices (for what are fairly obvious reasons to any comic book aficionado). For Eisner, most examples focused on "The Spirit", his comic book pull-out distributed in the Sunday newspapers during the 1940's and 50's. Kirby's work was largely examples from "The Fantastic Four," along with some of his earlier work with Timely Comics. Kurtzman had representative material from MAD magazine (naturally!), as well as his risque "Little Annie Fanny" feature from Playboy. Crumb had his usual large-figured women and odd geezers from his 60's and 70's comic book materials (and Fritz the Cat too!), but there was also an interesting (and true) comic-book story of old-time delta blues musician Charlie Patton -- that segment changed my opinion of Crumb- I'm starting to think maybe he's underappreciated.

Spiegelman is known for "Maus" and that comprised most of the selections for his portion of the show, while Ware's artwork is from Jimmy Corrigan and some of his other works. The only artist I'd never heard of, and whose work I didn't "get," was Panter. If anyone reading this now wants to try to explain why I should appreciate Panter, go right ahead.

The show was definitely worth it, but it ends March 12, and as far as I know, isn't being shown anywhere else. So sorry if you missed it. But there's another interesting show coming up; this one focuses on superheroes and science. Science, you say?

Yep-- we saw the banners on Wilshire on our way to and from food shopping-- Wolverine, the Invisible Girl, Storm, and others. My curiosity piqued, I decided to find out what this is all about. It seems the California Science Center, in Expo Park by the L.A. Coliseum, is hosting what is billed as the "premiere" of the Marvel Superheroes Science Exhibition. Apparently here people will be able to learn about the science behind their favorite superheroes. As the site says, "Is there a biological basis to the Hulk's transformation?" "How can knowledge of simple mechanics help us command the strength of Iron Man?" It sounds really interesting, but I predict a lot of the on-hands stuff is going to be monopolized by the under-18 set. Still, we'll probably go at some point.

Finally, lest DC feel left out, this year's stamps from your friendly Postal Service includes the release of a series of DC Superheroes stamps, including obvious choices like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, rounded out by Aquaman, Green Lantern, Flash, Green Arrow, Hawkman, Supergirl, and Plastic Man. Given that generally you have to have been dead at least ten years before you can have a stamp issued, that definitely includes Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and Supergirl. Not sure about the rest... (and yes, I know-- these are fictional characters)

So there you have it-- from pop culture to art to science to paying our credit card bills, this is definitely shaping up as a banner year for cartoons and comics in general.