Hanging with Mr. Michelinie

 

“It’s been years since I signed one of these,” David Michelinie said as he autographed my copy of DC Super Stars #16.   Then he picked up my copy of Adventure Comics #456.  “And I don’t believe I’ve ever signed one of these.”

Adventure Comics #456

It was a surreal moment for me.  Having loved comic books and superheroes since I was a kid and never grown out of it, I was sitting next to one of the guys responsible for that.  Michelinie wrote many of the stories I grew up reading and continue to revisit.

He was among the guests at last year’s Alabama Phoenix Festival, a three-day science fiction, anime, comics, and cosplay convention.  Even if you’re not an avid fan of any of those, this year’s event – scheduled for May 30-June 1 at the Sheraton Birmingham Hotel – is worth a visit.  It’s an opportunity to hang out with celebrities, sit in on some entertaining and informative panel discussions, and see some things you simply won’t see anywhere else.

And in my case last year, it gave me the chance to meet one of my superheroes.  As a nerdy kid who never wanted to do anything other than write, I always read the credits in the comic books my parents bought for me.

Michelinie greeting a fan during the 2013 Alabama Phoenix Festival.

David Michelinie was a name I was familiar with from way back.

“I always wanted to be a writer when I was a kid,” he said.  “When my friends wanted to be cowboys, rock stars, and astronauts, I was the weird one because I wanted to be a writer.  And I became a writer, even if nobody else became cowboys, rock stars, or astronauts.”

Michelinie sold his first story to National Periodical Publications (as DC Comics was then officially known) 41 years ago. “Coming in at the ground level in those days, you sent a script in, and it went into an editor’s slush pile,” he said.  “The editor would use it when he needed a filler story.” 

His script “Puglyon’s Crypt,” illustrated by Ramona Fradon, was published in House of Secrets #116, which went on sale in November, 1973, when comic books cost 20 cents each.  Told that the story showed promise, Michelinie made a decision. “I was in Kentucky at the time.  I’m not very ambitious, but I knew this was a great opportunity, and I showed up in New York on DC’s doorstep two months later.  When I arrived at DC, I had three goals:  sell a story, write a regular series, and create a new series.”

The second series Michelinie created for DC Comics was named for its heroine, Starfire.

Three more of his stories were published in House of Secrets within the next year, and DC assigned him to two more of its mystery titles, Weird War Tales and House of Mystery.  Later, he wrote for Swamp Thing, The Phantom Stranger, and Star-Spangled War Stories, which featured the Unknown Soldier.

The first issue of the Michelinie-created Claw the Unconquered.

He reached his third goal early in 1975 – by which time comics had gone up to two bits – when Claw the Unconquered debuted in his own title. Featuring a Conanesque swordsman and wanderer who concealed a deformed hand inside a metal gauntlet, the series ran for 12 issues.  Michelinie wrote all 12 stories and a thirteenth that was never published because Claw got conquered by the DC Implosion — a failed marketing campaign that resulted in the abrupt cancellation of more than 20 series — in 1978.

Starfire, Michelinie’s second series, began its run in 1976.  A combination of fantasy and science fiction, it was noteworthy for featuring a female protagonist.  The following year, he introduced Star Hunters – a group of adventurers who had been exiled from Earth by a malevolent corporation that had taken control of the planet — in DC Super Stars #16.  The team received its own seven-issue series, which also fell victim to the DC Implosion.

The first Star Hunters story.

In the meantime, Michelinie also wrote adventures of such established heroes as Aquaman, Superboy, Jonah Hex, and Karate Kid.  After five years at DC, he moved across town to Marvel and began writing for such now-iconic characters as the Avengers, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America, Daredevil, and Ant Man.  He also enjoyed successful runs on the licensed titles Star Wars and The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones.  His time at Marvel was distinguished by the creation of Venom, an alien villain whose original incarnation was as a new costume for Spider-Man.

“Did you like how Venom was depicted in Spider-Man 3?” I asked.

“I think they did the best they could within the limits of making a movie,” Michelinie said before adding, “But they didn’t ask me.”

A publicity still from Spider-Man 3, depicting Venom attacking Spidey.

“Having written Iron Man for as long as you did, what did you think of the movies?”

“For the most part, Robert Downey Jr. was the perfect Tony Stark.  He nailed it.”

“Of the characters you’ve written, do you have a favorite?”

“Other than those I created, Spider-Man.  He’s a real guy.”  Michelinie wrote more than 85 stories featuring the friendly neighborhood web-slinger, more than any writer other than Spidey creator Stan Lee.

“Are there a lot of differences between the comics business now and when you started out in the early 70s?”

He was reflective for a moment.  “There is a lot less respect for what has gone on before.  With a lot of money and the fans, there is much more of a superstar awareness of writers and artists.  I never thought about any of that.  I just loved what I was doing.”

And so did more than a few of us who grew up on David Michelinie’s stories and characters.

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A lesson in driving…and unpredictability

 

“No, Coach, I’ve never heard that one before,” I said to Autumn Smith after she’d shared an observation with me upon encountering one another in the foyer.  “I get Tim Robbins every now and then, and I got Doogie Howser once back in the very early ‘90s, but no one has ever told me I look like Jason Isbell.”

She tapped her iPhone a few times, and a photo of the country singer appeared on the screen.  “Really?  I see it.”  Looking at the round face and wide smile, I grudgingly had to agree that I saw it too.  A little.  Sort of.

The volleyball coach and I parted ways upon entering the lounge, Autumn gravitating toward a table in the center of the room to join Karri Bentley and Deon Gordon in a discussion about UAB athletics, while I waved toward the Bruno Event Team triumvirate Baxter was entertaining at the bar. 

Two-time Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. (Photo by Michael Levitt.)

I’d invited Jessica Sciacca, Angel Hufham, and Anna Lacy McMains to drop by, and they had done so in the company of Verizon IndyCar Series drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, and Charlie Kimball.  The motorsports stars were occupying a corner table for four, and Jessica motioned to me to take the empty chair.

It was early last week, a few days before Texas native Hunter-Reay won his second consecutive Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park and Hinchcliffe and Kimball both finished in the top 10 during the annual Birmingham-hosted race. 

“I’ve heard some drivers say they’re always glad to come back to Barber,” I ventured.  “You guys feel that way?”

“Barber is one of the best facilities we go to,” said Kimball, who finished fourth there last season.  “It’s one of the most fun for drivers and fans.  If I wasn’t on the other side of the fence wearing a helmet, I’d be sitting on a hill enjoying the race.”

“Charlie’s right,” Hinchcliffe said.  “The elevation changes and blind corners make it challenging, but they also make it a lot of fun to drive an IndyCar here.”

James Hinchcliffe. (Photo by Michael Levitt.)

“Something I’ve always kind of wondered about drivers is…you’re obviously opponents on the track, but do you also regard each other as colleagues to a degree?”

Hunter-Reay took the question.  “There is a certain amount of camaraderie.  And respect.  When you’re driving wheel-to-wheel with no fenders at 230 miles per hour, you have to have a certain amount of respect for each other.  But everybody wearing a helmet on Sunday is still somebody to beat.”

He demonstrated his ability to do that Sunday, leading 49 of the 69 completed laps of the rain-delayed race that was limited to a 100-minute time limit instead of the usual 80 laps.  Marco Andretti and Scott Dixon were on the podium with Hunter-Reay, who still trails Will Power by 18 points for the season.  They’ll all be on the track again on May 10 during the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, which serves as a lead-in to the 98thIndy 500 later this month.

Charlie Kimball during last year's Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. (Photo by Kevin York.)

Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, and Kimball (whose dad was a Formula One designer) said they all grew up on racing tracks, starting with small four-wheeled vehicles before they  were teenagers.  “While the others kids were playing football and hockey, I was racing go-karts,” recalled Hinchcliffe, a native of Toronto. 

“That’s a lot of experience,” I acknowledged.  “But the biggest criticism – if that’s the right word – I hear from people who aren’t motorsports fans is that there’s no real athletic skill involved.  It’s just driving a car around in a circle.  How would you three respond to that?”

“Yeah, we get that a lot,” Hinchcliffe said.  “I like to compare it to something people relate to easier, like basketball.  You can try to make a three-pointer, and when you miss 10 in a row, you realize it’s not easy.  So when you see a professional player make one, you say, ‘That guy’s good.’  Most people equate driving a race car to driving a road car. It doesn’t seem like it’s challenging.”

Hunter-Reay during the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. (Photo by Russell LaBounty.)

“Right,” Hunter-Reay agreed. “The sport is misunderstood because it’s not like a stick-and-ball sport most people have played recreationally.  What the average person hasn’t considered is the level of g-forces we experience in the cars, nor have they experienced it.  During a race, our heart rates are sustained at 175 beats per minute.  It’s physically exhausting.  And we have no power steering.”

Kimball took a sip of his beverage, then said, “At its simplest form, motorsports is getting from Point A back to Point A faster than anybody else.  But you’ve got 650 horsepower moving you at 100 yards a second, and it’s not in a circle.  You’re constantly braking and accelerating and turning right and left.”

Hinchcliffe's #27 United Fiber & Data car on the track at Barber. (Photo by Scott R. LePage.)

“Oh, and did I mention there’s no power steering?” Hunter-Reay added.

“That means the faster the car goes, the heavier the steering gets,” Hinchcliffe said.  “Ryan mentioned the Gs.  My head normally weighs 10 pounds, but we hit Gs of up to three and a half in the car.  Now, my head weighs 35 pounds, which makes it a lot harder for my neck to hold it up.  And we get no break from the start of a race to the finish, so it’s really physically demanding.”

“Charlie, I recall from when you and I talked once before that your condition make things a little extra challenging for you, right?” I asked.

“In certain ways,” replied Kimball, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 22.  “My car contains a glucose monitor so that I can keep up with my levels throughout a race, so I have to keep an eye on that in addition to everything else a driver has to be alert to.”

Kimball at Barber. (Photo by Scott R. LePage.)

“Is nutrition a concern for you while you’re in the car?”

“I have to make sure I’ve taken care of that before a race starts.  Unlike baseball or football, I can’t stop between innings or plays to get a snack or hydration.  I’m in the car for the length of the race, so I have to be ready to go when I climb in.  I keep a second drink bottle in my car – most drivers have one – full of orange juice so that I don’t have to stop if I do need some carbs.  So far, I’ve never had to use it.”

“For all the preparation and planning you guys have to do, racing is still a pretty unpredictable sport, though, right?”

“That’s what makes it entertaining for the fans and so challenging for us,” Hunter-Reay said.

“Yeah,” Hinchcliffe agreed.  “Your race plan can go out the window in the first turn.  The pit crew and the guys setting up the car have as much do with the race as the driver does, but there are still so many variables you don’t control that we have Plans A-F to cover all the bases.  And even then, you can execute everything perfectly and still finish out of the top 10.”

It was then that unpredictability appeared at our table in the form of Baxter, who placed a glass in front of me.  “Thanks, Baxter, but I haven’t ordered anything.” 

“I know,” he said, trying not to smile when he clearly wanted to.  “This is from the group at the bar.  They said it would be an honor to buy a drink for the country singer Jason Isbell.”

I turned to see six people at the bar instead of three.   Jessica, Angel, and Anna Lacy had been joined by Karri, Deon, and Autumn.

“Baxter,” I said, “please tell the coach that her game is deep.”

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The Great Sarah Miller Oscars Boycott

Considering it’s Oscars night, I had expected a lot of festivity at the club, especially after the bash Sarah Miller and Chanrda Chakravarthi threw last year to commemorate the 85thannual awards ceremony.

Instead, I found things relatively quiet and, directed there by Baxter, Chandra in the library talking to her tablet.

“Look,” she said to the screen, “you’ve had plenty of time to make your point.  Maybe you should come back to Birmingham before you get arrested.”

“Arrested?” I echoed.  “Who are you talking to, Chandra?”

“Sarah,” she replied wearily.  “We’re Skyping.  She’s in California.”

“Why?”

“I’m revolting,” the artist’s voice said.

“I shall resist the temptation to say that you have been for years and simply ask what you’re revolting against.”

“A gross and egregious oversight on the part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” Sarah said as a picket sign flashed in front of her digital face.  “I am here at the Dolby Theatre exercising my First Amendment rights in an effort to bring this injustice to the eyes of the world.”

Sarah in La-La Land

“The film in which she starred wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, nor was she nominated for Best Actress, so she’s protesting this year’s ceremony,” Chandra translated.

“Ah, yes, ‘We Never Talk Anymore.’  A classic.  I take it Sarah’s boycott explains why there isn’t a party tonight.”

“Yes.  She seemed to think it was more important to protest than it was to help me plan the party,” Chandra said as Sarah broke into a chorus of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

“She’ll be a while at that.  Okay.  No party.  But surely you made some predictions.”

“Naturally.  Where do you want to start?”

Chandra’s first – Jared Leto  as Best Supporting Actor for Dallas Buyers Club – was right on the money, although she hadn’t seen the film.  “I need to watch it and see what all the hype was about. I spent a better part of my time obsessing over his ombre hair than his role in this movie.  I think his hair received just as much attention if not more than his movie.”

“Best Supporting Actress?” I prompted.

“I think Lupita N’yongo will be taking home the award. She has been winning at many of the precursors, so it would be a surprise if the Academy gave this award to someone else.  If she doesn’t win, then I’ll probably find myself saying some not-so-nice words at my TV.  I’m also excited to see what she will be wearing on the red carpet. For an award show newbie, I’ve been impressed with her style choices. She’s a budding fashionista.”

Sarah’s voice continued to come through loud and clear.  “Everybody sing!  Where have all the movie critics gone?  Long time passing!”

“Who’s your best actor, Chandra?”

“Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. He seems to be in a really, really good place in his career. Like I said, I haven’t seen the movie, and I don’t really know too much about it other than it being during the AIDS movement. I think he’s now at a phase in his life where he can be taken as a serious actor, because to me he has always been a rom-com star alongside Kate Hudson.”

“Best Actress?”

“Sarah Miller for We Never Talk Anymore,” the tablet screamed.

Sarah following in the footsteps (and handprints) of Dick Van Dyke.

Chandra muted the volume.  “Cate Blanchett.   I never got to see Blue Jasmine, and I really don’t even know what it’s about. I know that she’s been getting a lot of buzz for her role in this film, so it seems like she’s a predictable win for this category. I’m sure she deserves it though. I’ve always liked her and I think she’s incredibly talented and can completely immerse herself in any role. Didn’t Woody Allen direct that movie?”

“He did,” I acknowledged.

“Yeah, I feel like I found out about this more because Woody was directing it and there was this alleged scandal that’s been surrounding him.  I know I should judge him based on his work and not on his personal life, but I find it disturbing that he had a relationship with this stepdaughter and he married a 16-year-old when he was only 19. He is a cinematic icon though.  I can’t deny that.”

“Got a Best Directing favorite?”

“Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity. He made a technical masterpiece, and he delivered with something pretty unique. His film was the most challenging to make in that sense. I’m always interested to see the best director and Best Picture winners announced because there have been times when there has been a split between these categories. So if Alfonso Cuaron wins for best director, then there is a small possibility that Gravity may not win Best Picture but I think this year Gravity might sweep both categories.”

“Okay, now for the biggie.  Best Picture.”

“We Never Talk Anymore!”

“I thought you muted that.”

“So did I,” Chandra said, scowling at Sarah’s digital face.  “Injustice aside, I think all the movies that were nominated in this category are worthy contenders, but I think it’s definitely going to be between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. I think both are equally-deserving of this award but for different reasons. Gravity was impressive because the technical and visual effects were taken to a whole new level.  12 Years a Slave was really heartbreaking and often times difficult to watch but you really feel this emotional pull towards the characters. It’s not always easy for a movie with a historic statement to accomplish that.

“However, I think Gravity will end up winning this award simply because it was groundbreaking.  I would give the Oscar to 12 Years a Slave, because I do like movies that have something meaningful to say and have the cast portraying characters that allow them to push their boundaries as actors/actresses. Then again, we could be thrown for a loop and American Hustle could take home this award.  I would love to see a comedy win in this category. I mean has a comedy ever won the Best Picture Oscar?”

“I don’t know,” Sarah said, “but Home Alone 2 should have.”

“Did you protest that too?” I asked.

“I should have,” the artist replied.  “But they won’t get away with this oversight.”  Chandra and I watched as she hoisted her sign and called to the red carpet crowd.  “The Times They Are A-Changing, everybody!  On 1…2…3!”

Chandra sighed.  “Now she’ll probably expect a Grammy.”

 

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Cucumbers and Curling

 

It was a couple of days ago, and the lounge was filled with regulars gathered there to watch the Sochi Games and welcome Bob Costas back to primetime coverage.

I drifted toward the bar, behind which Baxter was making a face.  He’d been teaching mixologist Clair McLafferty how to make a Screaming Viking – one of the club’s signature drinks which also happens to be his invention – and had just sampled her attempt.

Clair was also making a face.  “What’s wrong now?”

“This time,” Baxter said, “you sliced the cucumber at a 42” – he took another taste – “no, a 41-degree angle.  As I told you after your three previous efforts, the cucumber must be sliced precisely at 43 degrees or the drink is rendered non-potable.  Try again.”

“Is he always this particular?” Clair asked as she grabbed another green gourd.

“Usually.  And when it comes to his own drinks, you have no idea.”

“Well, he’d better lighten up, or this cucumber won’t be the only thing getting bruised.”

“Maybe it’s a good thing I just ordered a beer,” remarked the occupant of the barstool to my left.

“Glad to have you back, John.  Got some more numbers for us?”

“You know it.  WalletHub decided to audit the Sochi Olympics in much the same manner as we did Super Bowl XLVIII.”

John Kiernan is senior researcher for WalletHub, a financial resources company that analyzes anything related to money, including spending related to significant events.  He was at the club a few weeks back to share WalletHub’s breakdown of the numbers behind the Super Bowl.

“We discovered,” he said, that “this year is a year of firsts for the Winter Olympics.”

“Such as?” I asked.

 “From Sochi’s traditionally warm February temps to fact that the Olympic torch visited space for the first time. But it’s when you start talking money that things truly get interesting, and location has everything to do with it.”

“Location?”

“It cost $51 billion for Russia to throw it.  That’s more than the 21 previous Winter Olympics combined, and what’s funny is that the number includes $8.7 billion spent on a transportation system between Sochi and the mountains that could have been paved with nine centimeters of shredded Louis Vuitton bags for the same price.  It’s also crazy how much NBC spent on the broadcast rights,” John said.

“Which was?”

“Seven hundred and seventy-five million dollars, with advertising sales expected to bring in $1.05 billion.”

“How does that compare with what advertisers pay for Super Bowl commercials?  Does it cost more to advertise during the Olympics?”

“Well, a 30-second commercial spot costs less during the Olympics, because it’s spread over so many days, whereas the Super Bowl is a one-night event.  Overall, it’s certainly not cheap to become an Olympic sponsor, and all parties involved are still doing just fine.”

“Have you been watching much of the Games?” I asked.

“A ton of it,” John replied, “although I’m certainly not watching all of it. I’m into the downhill skiing and hockey.”

“What about curling?”

John chuckled.  “That’s about as boring to me as cross country skiing, something to have on in the background while you’re doing something else.”

We turned at the sound of a dull thud, and John picked up his glass just in time to prevent a flash of green from colliding with it as a cucumber ricocheted off Baxter’s forehead.

“You know,” I observed, “put a curling stone in Clair’s hand, and that sport might get a lot more interesting.”

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Super Bowl XLVIII, by the Numbers

 

“Seriously?” I asked John Kiernan as we sat in the lounge waiting for Sunny Brown to begin her second comedy set. 

“Seriously.  1.25 billion.”

“Who would have thought so many chicken wings would be consumed in one day?”

“It’s just one number that speaks to how big this event is, from ticket prices to advertising rates to how much consumers spend on food and drinks for their parties.”

John is the senior researcher for WalletHub, a relatively-new financial resources company. “We’re an anything money-related company,” he explained.  “We offer financial education and advice and cover financial topics in articles, studies, and reports about spending related to significant events.”

“For example…?” I prompted.

“We did a report about the financial impact of the government shutdown, a return-on-investment look at ObamaCare, and this week we released our statistical audit of the Super Bowl.”

“I’m inclined to think one of those things is not like the others.”

“Well,” John said, “the Super Bowl has such an impact on the economy and is such a game of numbers, which are all tied together, that there’s no shortage of ways to look at it.”

Such as the number of wings that will be consumed on Super Bowl Sunday.  Or the four million bucks it costs advertisers to buy 30 seconds of air time during the game.  Then there are the 78 million social media posts that will be made about it.  And the 169 million people who will tune in to watch the Seahawks and Broncos.

A former sports reporter who studied journalism at the University of Maryland, John acknowledged that some of WalletHub’s findings could be regarded as surprising.

“Most people understand how big the Super Bowl is, but when you really look at the precise numbers, such as how many people will watch the game and the 180 countries and more than 30 languages in which it will be broadcast, it really speaks to the enormous worldwide appeal of the event.”

“The advertising numbers sound pretty enormous too,” I observed.

“People understand how expensive a Super Bowl ad is, but when you look at how much individual companies have spent on ads, it’s staggering.  Anheuser-Busch, for example.  They’ve spent $145.9 million on Super Bowl ads since 2009.”

“You mentioned ticket prices earlier.  How high are they getting?”

“Actually, average ticket prices have been expected to fall the closer to game time.”

“Really?  I’d have expected the opposite.”

“Normally that would be the case, but a lot of attention is on the weather this year.  There’s a 21 percent chance of frozen precipitation and temperatures of less than 25 degrees.  The last thing the NFL wants is the game to run over into Monday.  That’s why they have 800 snowplows on standby.”

“And that’s what’s causing ticket prices to drop?”

“That, and the fact that Seattle and Denver are not that close to New Jersey also has a lot to do with it.  Last week, the average ticket price was $4,000.  This week, it was $3,000, and it could still fall to a point that would be lower than it’s been for any of the past five Super Bowls, which shows the potential for bad weather in practical terms.”

“But isn’t football’s ability to be played in extreme weather part of its appeal?”

John nodded.  “Some of the most celebrated games in NFL history have been played in super cold conditions with massive amounts of snow.  Fans like conditions like that and seeing how players react to it, but they don’t necessarily want to be there for it.”

“Meaning they’d rather watch it at home?”

“With the fantasy aspects and improvements in TV quality, at-home viewership has gotten so good that finding ways to attract fans to stadiums has become a large obstacle facing the league moving forward.”

“Even in the post-season?”

“That’s right.  There was some talk about local blackouts of the early-round playoff games this year because they weren’t selling enough tickets.  It used to be unheard of that a playoff game wouldn’t be sold out.”

“So who are you pulling for?”

John considered.  “The Broncos.  The Seahawks’ players don’t appeal to me this season, and I don’t like the way they play defense.  And if Peyton Manning wins another Super Bowl, we won’t have to listen to the debate any more about him being overrated or irrelevant at this stage of his career.”

“You don’t sound certain about that.”

“Well, if I were betting, I’d go with the Seahawks.  I think because of all the attention on Manning and the Broncos, the best value proposition is on the Seahawks.”

“Did your analysis include sports books?” I asked.

“It did.  There’s actually more gambling related to the Super Bowl than I would have thought.  Vegas books are expecting a profit of $8 million, but people will wager more than $98 million, which goes all the way down to the casual fan who gets involved in an office pool.  And if you consider investing a gamble, the stock market index is even affected by the Super Bowl.”

“How’s that?”

“In years when an NFC team wins, the S&P 500 goes up.  When an AFC team wins, it goes down for the year.  That’s proven accurate 79 percent of the time.”

“So if you have a lot of money in the market…”

“Yes,” John said as Sunny took the stage again, “you might want to pull for the Seahawks.”

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A Conversation with a Golden Age Great

 

Of all the guests who’ve visited the Cobalt Club, Allen Bellman isn’t one I’m likely to forget any time soon. 

Sporting a red shirt, Betty Boop suspenders, and sunglasses beneath a white coiffure, the octogenarian is a distinctive figure even before you begin to consider the legacy of his work, which began 71 years ago and continues to influence pop culture.

Bellman signing a pirnt of his work for a fan at the Alabama Phoenix Festival.

Bellman was in Birmingham a while back to attend the Alabama Phoenix Festival, a three-day event celebrating science fiction, fantasy, and comic books.  As one of the last artists from the Golden Age of Comics who are still on the scene, he was among the festival’s most popular guests last year.

“Do you remember some of the first things you ever drew?” I asked him.

“I started out drawing on paper bags at my father’s bakery,” the Manhattan native replied.  “As a kid, I always wanted to draw and tell stories with pictures.”

From that beginning, he landed a job as a staff artist for Timely Publications, the publishing house that eventually became Marvel Comics Group.  “I got my job there on Columbus Day, 1942,” Bellman said.  “I started out drawing backgrounds.”

Bellman in 1945.

“Backgrounds?”

“Whatever is in back or in front of the characters,” he explained.  His talent quickly led to assignments beyond that, including drawing the adventures of Marvel’s “big three” characters:  Captain America, the Human Torch (the predecessor to Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four), and the Sub-Mariner (an aquatic hero who predates the better-known DC character Aquaman). 

The Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner debuted in the first issue of Marvel Comics in 1939 (a comic book that’s now valued at half a million bucks), and Captain America first battled Nazi tyranny two years later in the first issue of his own magazine, written and drawn by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.  Bellman began working on Marvel’s characters as their original artists moved on to other projects, other publishers, or World War II.

This is a vintage example of Bellman's work from All Winners Comics #21 (Winter, 1946-47). This story featured The Whizzer, a hero who obtained super speed powers after being transfused with mongoose blood to counteract a cobra bite.

“Whatever Stan Lee threw at me I would do,” he recalled.  Besides the “big three,” he wrote scripts, drew, and inked his own and other artists’ pencil work on a number of Timely’s less well-remembered features (the Blonde Phantom, Blackstone the Magician, and the Young Allies) and the publisher’s science fiction, western, horror, crime, and sports titles.  Although he was quite prolific, he never kept any of his published work.  “If a comic book had my art in it, I threw it away.”

The Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch still appear in Marvel comics, but Captain America remains the character with which Bellman is most associated.  “I’m glad to see Captain America still very popular and still in demand.  I even got invited to the opening of the movie in Los Angeles.  We went out there, walked on the red, white, and blue carpet, and partied with the stars.”

After 51 years as a professional artist, Bellman retired to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.  Having survived two heart attacks and six coronary stent procedures, he’s now less than six months away from 90, still accepting commissions for reproductions of his old work and other comics characters, and still active on the convention circuit.  He’s already made two convention appearances this month and has nine more on his schedule for the remainder of the year.

Bellman joins comics writer David Michelinie in classic superheroic pose. These guys are two of my superheroes. I've admired their work since I was a kid.

While our conversation was briefer than I wish it had been, the experience remains one I wouldn’t trade for all the bridges in Bridgetown.  There aren’t many of these great old artists left, something that isn’t lost on Bellman.

“I feel very blessed that I was able to spend so many years doing the work I love, and that I’m still able to be at the conventions.  It’s like getting away from reality for me.  I get energized when I’m here.  This is vitalization for my soul.”

Bellman offers to teach Birmingham writer, mixologist, and comics fan Clair McLafferty how to strike a classic superhero pose.

"First you make a fist."

"No, you're using the wrong fist."

"That's better."

Captain America would be proud.

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In the Library: Seriously Funny

This well-researched study of the revolutionary comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (Jonathan Winters, Woody Allen, Nichols & May, Bob Newhart, Ernie Kovacs, Mort Sahl, Mel Brooks, Phyllis Diller, Will Jordan, Vaughn Meader, The Smothers Brothers, Tom Lehrer, etc.) is a must-read for anyone who appreciates stand-up comedy.

 

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The Soprano and the Serpent

 

Paula Reid placed the stuffed Hello Kitty figure on top of the amplifier – as she does before every Desperate Hero performance – and seemed completely oblivious that she’d just made one of the most remarkable statements ever heard at the Cobalt Club.

“I’m sorry,” I said, needing to make sure I’d understood her.  “You did what with a snake?”

“Regurgitated it.”

“You regurgitated a snake.”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll probably regret saying this, but I would like to hear that story.”

“Well,” Paula said, glancing at center stage, where her husband Troy and his fellow rockers were setting up their equipment, “we’ve got a few more minutes before the show starts.”
We sat down at the nearest table, and Emsworth materialized with a plate of crab legs and asparagus on his tray.  “Your usual, madam.”

“Thanks.  Any chance I could get a Jack & Coke to go with it?”

“I shall have Baxter prepare it at once.”

Paula as a child?

As Emsworth vanished and Paula broke a leg, I thought that this bespectacled mezzo soprano and toddler mom hardly looked like someone who would even touch a reptile, let alone force one to cough up its most recent meal.

“If I walked up on a snake right now, I’d leap back like any good Southern woman should, start looking for something to chop it up with, and study it when it’s in pieces” she said.  “Creepy crawlies have never been my thing.”

“But you signed up for a herpetology class in high school?”

Paula nodded as she speared asparagus.  “Why I thought it was a good idea, I don’t know.”  Her herpetology class at the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science in Mobile was taught by Dr. Terry Schwaner, a leading expert on Australian tiger snakes. 

If you'd care to know what this tiger snake had for breakfast, Paula would be happy to find out for you.

“I must confess ignorance of the existence of tiger snakes,” I said.

“An extremely venomous snake that lives in southern Australia and Tasmania.  Their venom contains neurotoxins and myotoxins, causes blood clots, and breaks down red blood cells.  They can get to be 10 feet long, and they don’t back down when they feel threatened.”

“So what you regurgitated was not a tiger snake.”

“No,” she said with a laugh.  “It was nonpoisonous, but other than that, I don’t remember what kind it was.  Dr. Schwaner took the class to Dauphin Island, and there we were, up to our knees in water and poking around in the brush to look for snakes.  A smart thing to do with a bunch of teenagers.”

Before long, Paula found herself with a 16-inch-long, slime-drenched serpent in her hands.  “It had this bump in its belly, and Dr. Schwaner said, ‘Let’s see what it ate.’”

“And you do that by…?”

“Smushing up its belly until whatever it ate comes back up.”

“So in this case…?”

“A frog’s foot came sticking out.”

“Lovely.”

Despite her fascinating reptile encounters, Paula decided not to pursue herpetological studies. "I have a voice degree, which I use every day as I sit in front of a computer."

“Tell me about it.  The snake was fighting to get it back down as I was trying to get it out of him.  To this day, I can see that slimy webbed foot sticking out of its mouth.”

“So you identified what it had eaten.  What did you do next?”

“Smushed it back down so the snake could finish digesting it,” Paula said before swallowing crab.

“Do you remember what you were thinking during the regurgitation process?”

“Probably a bit grossed out but still intrigued to some degree.”

I laughed and shook my head.  “So that’s the story of how you regurgitated a snake.”

Paula finished off her cocktail.  “Not a lot of people can say they’ve done that.”

It was then that Wade Smith passed by our table.  We greeted him, and my brow crinkled as I saw what he was wearing.

“New t-shirt?”

“Yeah,” he said, straightening it out so we could read it.  “Isn’t this keen?”

“Where did you get it?”

“In the foyer.  The VIP was out there giving them away.”

“Excuse me,” I said to him and Paula as I headed for the front.  The Cobalt Club had received two rather enigmatic correspondences from the VIP, but as yet I had no idea of the mysterious character’s identity.

In the foyer, I found Millicent, Chloe Carstairs, Taylor Wyatt, Christy Turnipseed, Deon Gordon, Scott Wilson, and Beth Shelburne all wearing and admiring “Keep Calm and Read the VIP” t-shirts.  They had received the garments from a young woman they all described as “fabulous,” but that was all I was able to learn.

None of the regulars could remember her name or agree about what she looked like.

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There are no small roles…

As I passed by the lounge, I noticed Noelle Gunn sitting alone at a table for four, watching Desperate Hero set up for its first set.  She waved back at me as I crossed the room and sat down opposite her.

“Tanner not with you tonight?” I asked.

“He’s meeting me here,” she replied, smiling brightly above her trademark scarf.  “His rehearsal ran long.”

“I didn’t realize he’s doing a show now too.”

“Yeah, he’s in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Virginia Samford.”

“When does it open?”

“Thursday, same as the show I’m in.”

Noelle has the lead in Theatre LJCC’s production of Funny Girl.  She and her significant other, Tanner McCracken, have performed together in five local plays, including a successful staging of Barefoot in the Park – in which they portrayed Neil Simon’s newlyweds– earlier this year.  This season, they’re in different shows that share the same run:  weekends, Nov. 7-17.

“Are you enjoying being Fanny Brice?” I asked.  “I’d think that role would be a lot of fun.”

“It’s definitely challenging,” Noelle replied, “especially with me not looking much like her anyway. Most of the actresses who play the part look like her:  tall, thin, bright blue eyes.  I don’t look like that.”

Nobody really looks like Fanny Brice, but that’s only part of what made the comedienne unique.  A burlesque performer who became a Ziegfeld Follies headliner in 1910, she rose to stardom on Broadway and in films before she became an even bigger star on radio during the 1940s.  Sadly, due to her untimely death in 1951, Brice is not as well remembered today as many of her contemporaries.

Brice in her most famous role, Baby Snooks, the character that made her a huge radio star.

“It helped to look up videos of the real Fanny Brice on YouTube,” Noelle said. “When you watch them, you can really see how some of the comedic greats we know – Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett in particular – have drawn from her.”

“What impresses you the most about her?”

“Her flexibility.  She had a very rubber face and was very animated.  If you look at old glamour stills of her, you would not expect her to be as physically funny as she was.  She also had a gorgeous voice that you would not expect of her.”

“Speaking of her voice, a few standards came out of this musical, didn’t they?”

“The show does contain a lot of stuff people know,” Noelle said, nodding.  “’People,’ ‘I am Woman,’ ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’…”

A publicity photo of Fanny Brice from her days on The Great White Way.

“Streisand originated the role on Broadway and in the movie, right?  Do you feel any pressure to play the part and sing the songs the way she did, or are you trying to make it your own?”

She laughed.  “Well, it does come with some big shoes to fill, so you want to do it right.  Even if you don’t come into it as a die-hard fan of the show, everybody knows Streisand’s versions of those songs.  I love the songs the way she sings them, but as soon as I found out I’d gotten the part, I started poring over the music from the original Broadway show, the stage musical, and the movie – they’re all different, so I have three versions to choose from.”

Tanner walked in as she was speaking, affectionately squeezing her shoulder before taking the chair beside her.

“How was your rehearsal?” I asked.

“It was fine,” he said.  “I’m just wearing a number of different hats in this show.”

“More than one part?”

“I’m a member of the Sanhedrin, but I also show up as a reporter, a SWAT officer, and an old homeless guy.”

“Which one’s your favorite?”

“I’d say the SWAT guy.  There’s a short riot scene, and I enjoy the stage fighting.  That’s fun for me.”

“You’ve both played leading roles, and you’ve both had supporting parts,” I said.  “Do you feel that you learn more from one or the other?”

Tanner considered.  “You learn different lessons from each.  When you’re the lead, it’s a challenge because the success of the performance, to a considerable extent, is on your shoulders.  But you can’t do it all yourself, and there can’t be a show without the character parts.  There’s a cliché saying in theater that there are no small roles, only small actors.  You may have a one-scene, five-line role, but that part is there for a reason, and a good actor will bring his all to that one scene and those five lines.”

“And if you do those roles right, you can completely steal your scene,” Noelle said.

“Right.  You can come in, shine bright, and stick in people’s memory that way.  It can be like the difference between a dash and a marathon.  The lead role is not necessarily the most fun.”

If you’d like to see the thespians having fun with their respective roles, Jesus Christ Superstar runs for eight performances through Nov. 17, and Funny Girl for six.

 

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The Radioactive Ostrich Award

Millicent stopped me at the coat check room, a small envelope in her hand.

“Oh, good.  You’re here. This came for you.”

I took it, removed a small horizontally-folded card, and glanced at the script written on it before looking back at Millicent.  “Who’s this from?”

She shrugged.  “No one seems to know.  It was just here.  Apparently nobody saw who delivered it.”

I looked at the card again, holding it so Millicent could also read it. 

“Hello, again!” it said.  “You’ll be seeing me soon!  Looking forward to visiting the club!  Stay fabulous!  (signed)  The VIP.”

“Who’s the VIP?” she asked.

“I still don’t know,” I replied, remembering a mysterious, similarly-signed email the club had received a few weeks back while Sadie Mason-Smith was visiting.  “I wonder when we’ll find out.”

In the dining room, an animated conversation was under way as I sat down at a table where Noe Herrera, my big burly buddy from below the border, was slicing into a perfectly-cooked porterhouse.

“So what’s everyone talking about?” I asked.

“The most unusual animal you’ve ever been bitten by,” Noe said.

“Ah.  Too bad Wade Smith’s not here yet.”

“Why?”

“He was once bitten by an ostrich.”

“No way!” Mandy Shunnarah said from the next table where she sat with Sarah Miller.

“Way,” I replied.  “It was radioactive.  That’s how Wade got his super ostrich powers.”

“I got bitten by a bear that was opposed to the Second Amendment,” Birmingham Vaudeville Company founder Scott Autrey offered as he twirled the end of his mustache. “Does that count for anything?

“It wasn’t by chance the same bear that was balancing on a big ball while biting an ice cream cone Ed Sullivan was holding in his mouth?” I asked him.

“Who’s Ed Sullivan?” Mandy whispered to Sarah, who shrugged. 

“Old person reference,” the artist answered.

Ed Sullivan

“A pack saddle,” Lisa McIntosh said. 

“A pack saddle?” I echoed.

“A spiny caterpillar that injects poison into you through the spines,” Lisa explained.  “I got stung by one once while I was working in my flower bed.  It hurt like no other sting I’ve ever had.”

“Not bad, but it’s going to take more than that to win the Radioactive Ostrich Award,” Noe said.

“All right, Noe, what have you got?” I asked.

“A skink.”

“I didn’t know skinks were biters.  Details, por favor.”

“It’s what happens when your son tells you to pull up a railroad tie because he saw something cool. In reality, it was trying to get away from us and it hung on to my knuckle skin for five minutes.”

“How about a goose?” Tripp Warren asked.

“You got bitten by a goose?” Sarah replied as Mandy, wearing an up-to-something grin, left the table and disappeared from the room.

“I was at the Shakespeare festival to watch Twelfth Night, in which I was soon to co-star as Sebastian, the twin brother of Viola. We brought picnic lunches to eat on the grounds, and the goose apparently wanted my sandwich more than me.  It attacked with the raging ferocity of a velociraptor, quickly throttling my arm and removing the sandwich from my possession,” Tripp said, reenacting the foul’s aggressive behavior. “I left the lawn, bereft of nourishment but with contusions as badges of honor to display as evidence of my fierce battle.”

“What a relief that you survived to tell the story, sir,” Currie said dryly as he appeared to place a glass filled with amber liquid in front of Tripp.

“I got stung by a stingray once,” Christy Brown said.  “Does that count?”

“You mean a jellyfish?” I asked.

“No, it was a stingray.  I saw it swim away.  It was in Cape San Blas, Florida, and we had only been there like 30 minutes or so. We were swimming but Addi wanted to go play in the sand. So being the good aunt I am, I was carrying her back to shore and I stepped on part of the sting ray, and then it stung me.”

“Painful?” Noe asked.

“It hurt so bad I could barely walk back. They came and got Addi so I could sit on the beach. I felt like I was dying! They were trying to do anything to help. Lori even offered to pee on my foot.  That doesn’t work, by the way.   I told her no!”

“I don’t even want to know how you found out Lori’s suggestion doesn’t work,” I said.

“Hey, there was no way I was letting her pee on me!” Christy said, laughing. “Thank goodness a neighbor saw and told us what to do. You have to soak it in really hot water. She said if I went to the hospital, which was an hour away, that’s all they would do for me. She said it would be the most expensive water you ever pay for. Anyways, I have learned to do the string ray shuffle when I go in the water now.  I’m not getting stung again.”

Nanci Scarpulla was a couple of tables over, being uncharacteristically quiet and looking slightly perplexed, as if she was debating joining the quest for the Radioactive Ostrich.

“My mom,” she finally said, “was bitten in the nipple by a Birmingham police horse once. The cop was embarrassed beyond belief and, seriously, how do you comfort a middle aged woman after that?  Talk about awkward.”

“I presume, Nanci, that the horse was shielded by the immunity provision?”

“Yes, unlike my mother’s… Anyway, it was one of those let’s-not-talk-about-it moments.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”

“I declare the horse story to be winner,” Noe said.  “Hand that woman her radioactive award!”

“Radioactive award?” Wade asked as he walked into the room.

Currie appeared at his elbow, a glass on his silver tray.  “For you, Mr. Smith.”

“Oh.  Thanks, but I haven’t ordered anything yet.”

“Of that I am aware, sir.  This cocktail was ordered for you by Ms. Shunnarah,” Currie said, nodding at Mandy, who had returned to her table.  “Baxter prepared it especially for you based on a recipe of her own invention.”

Wade accepted the glass and sipped the magenta liquid.  “Hmm.  This is not bad.  What’s it called?”

The left corner of Currie’s mouth rose half a millimeter.  “A Chomping Ostrich.”

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