Tuesday, April 21, 2009

John Madden, part 2

The stories that people relish most about John Madden, I think, are those that capture the humor he brought to his broadcasting work, as well as all the things he focused on away from the field -- from tailgating to bocce -- that made him the ultimate representative of the everyday fan.

Understandable.

But I want to devote this post to the memory of how his career spanned very different eras. In many ways, Madden is a symbol of a changed America. If I had to pick just one thing to point to, it would be how his peak analyst years coincided with a period of ostentatious power and wealth for network TV. I remember a Super Bowl at which the premier event -- at least to me -- was a ritzy CBS dinner that featured Madden discussing the state of the NFL. Getting an invitation to that insider's evening felt more privileged than being at the game. Oh, how the glitz and prominence of network broadcasting has faded since those days.

One other strong recollection: Before the existence of the Madden Cruiser super bus, our hero made many trips through a historic railroad hub -- Meridian, Miss. Check out the Wikipedia entry. That was before the time of the ubiquitous cell phone, so catching up to Madden for an interview meant waiting for him to call from Meridian in between making connections. Eventually, he might have been one of America's great authorities on trains. But the bus took him off the tracks and put him on the highways. I'm a little wistful about it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

John Madden, part 1

All other pop culture news takes a back seat to John Madden's announcement of his retirement from broadcasting. Madden is special, and he has permeated the national culture.

Sure, everything he influenced stemmed from his work as a TV football analyst. But I think people -- millions of people, including lots of non-football fans -- are going to remember him most vividly for commercials (I think first of Ace Hardware), or for the long-running video game series built on his name, or for his fear of flying and what he told us about America as he traveled by train and bus, or for his opinions about food (and how it applied to tailgating) or for the way he described the fascinating people he encountered, be they celebrities or folks he met at restaurants along the road.

I suspect he's going to remain in the public eye fairly prominently. But his broadcasting retirement sparked a ton of memories from the many years when I covered him regularly as a TV or video-game columnist. I'm going to spread out these recollections over a series of posts; the one I want to start with makes me laugh as hard as when Madden originally got me going:

He had an apartment in New York City at the famous Dakota building, where there were plenty of famous residents. Madden told me there was a unique downside for him: close neighbors included conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein and singer Roberta Flack. He was hearing a little too much of their musical genius. I can't instantly put my hands of the story I wrote back then, but I don't think I've messed up the details. Madden -- whose signature style features words like "boom" and "bam" -- appreciated the elegance of their talent. But he had to laugh at himself for finding it, well, noisy.

More on Madden soon.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A sense of obligation

A couple of other bloggers have given SectorEarth a nice plug recently, and more people are starting to comment -- the true heart of a blog, I think. And yet it has been a number of days since I posted anything. Basically, some family matters got in the way. That's a relatively good reason for temporary silence, I suppose, but I'm unhappy about it. I feel a sense of obligation to post regularly, and tonight marks the start of what I hope will be far more frequent reporting and commentary.

By the weekend, I want to mention the bloggers who have mentioned me -- there's some synergy in what we're doing. And there has been a lot of breaking news with a pop culture slant over the last two weeks. Some of it screams for discussion, so I'll try to ignite as much of that as possible. But at this given moment, there's just one thing I want to highlight: a new book about erotic horror comics drawn by Superman co-creator Joe Shuster, who apparently did the work when he was down on his luck in the 1950s.

USA Today gave the book -- "Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-Creator Joe Shuster" by Craig Yoe -- fairly prominent coverage in a Monday article by David Colton. Wrote Colton: "What makes the illustrations more than simply a curiosity of the times is the disturbing fact that many of the characters look exactly like Shuster's Superman and Lois Lane.''

Disturbing? Maybe a better word is revealing. Or tragic. See what you think. Head to Amazon's site, where you can get an idea of what the book adds (or subtracts?) in terms of comics history.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My question about the Fallujah game hubbub

The pop culture news that has intrigued me most over the last couple of days is the coverage of Konami's plans for a video game about U.S. military action in Iraq: "Six Days in Fallujah.''

GamePolitics.com delivered an excellent outline of the controversy that started percolating. Read that synopsis and pay particular attention to this: People objecting to the game are quoted as referring to the war in Iraq being trivialized, as characterizing the concept as flippant, and as being upset over a "massacre" becoming entertainment.

To me, there is an obvious tone that is dismissive about a video game in a way that we'd be unlikely to hear if "Six Days in Falljuh'' were going to be a movie, play or even, say, a graphic novel. Sure, this is pure conjecture on my part. But I think that much of the criticism of video games comes on two levels: There's always a specific flash point -- in this case, the Iraq factor -- and then there's also an underlying (and wrongheaded) contempt for video games as being without artistic or social value.

You think?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mark your calendars for Super-Con

Keep these dates in mind: Saturday May 16 and Sunday May 17. That's when the fourth Super-Con -- a comics and pop culture convention of maturing quality -- will be at the San Jose Convention Center's South Hall.

I'll have a lot more to say about the event as it gets closer. But here's why I'm emphasizing it now: It's still a little under the radar even though last year it presented a terrific balance of informality and value. There was a solid lineup of celebrity guests and panels wrapped around a wonderful throwback atmosphere of true fans who were enjoying conversations with each other as much as any other activity. Super-Con simply blew away WonderCon in terms of hospitality.

This year's guest list (as it stands now anyway) has some extra appeal for me: Marina Sirtis -- Star Trek The Next Generation's Deanna Troi -- is scheduled to be there. So, OK, that fanboy part of me is now on the record, publicly.

More about Super-Con later this month. But plan now, if only because fun can seem scarce these days. Go on day one and I think you'll go back on day two.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Comic book distress

A long-time Bay Area comics-shop owner -- I've known several of them pretty well for, oh, probably a decade or longer -- was in a casually candid mood this week. The most inside revelation: He has been dealing with sales declines in the 30 percent range as the economy has tanked. And he said other comic-store owners are telling him they're more or less in the same boat.

That's not to say every store is under stress. There may be a lot of variation based on unemployment rates in the immediate vicinity of each shop. Located in Silicon Valley with customers who tend to be young high-tech workers at firms undergoing lots of downsizing? That won't be good.

Most interesting to me: The guy I talked to has felt direct impact from the lousy material the major publishers have been putting out. Marvel's despicable "Brand New Day'' Spider-Man story line led to a stream of lost sales. DC's incoherent "Final Crisis'' series changed habits: Some customers stopped showing up with regularity on new comics day each week (and that includes me).

Comic books are the seed product that bred generations of fans for the high-quality comics movies that now are flourishing. "The Dark Knight'' (the best, I think), "Iron Man" and "Watchmen'' are all recent and extraordinary examples. To have the core product -- print storytelling of a fabulously imaginative nature -- be floundering so badly is frustrating and sad.

"Thor," said this comics retailer, "try that.'' OK, when I happen to be near a shop.