Note: It’s taken me several sleepless nights to try and put these words together. They still seem woefully pathetic in expressing the sadness I carry and the good memories of the small part of my friend’s life that I was honored and humbled to be a part of, but I hope they will do it justice.

 

I’m trying, and finding it extremely difficult,  to process the unexpected passing of a friend.

I’ve been trying to since Tuesday morning at approximately 8:30 am MST when Cindy called me crying to tell me that our friend, Art Littlefield, had passed away Monday. I was driving across the barren Lakota Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation on my way to the FEMA office in Pine Ridge and the news was such a stunning blow that I could not even accept what I was hearing. I thought she must be referring to his dad, who is also named Art.

It was interesting, the way we first met Art. About 6 1/2 years ago Cindy’s mom was talking to one of the other ladies who attended the same water aerobics class that she did in Orlando. Cindy’s mom mentioned to this lady that her daughter and son-in-law were building a cabin in Maggie Valley and the lady replied that her son was also building a cabin in Maggie Valley. Cindy’s mom said that we were building our cabin on Sheepback Mountain and the lady replied that her son was building his cabin on the same mountain. The coincidence was quite surprising.

The biggest difference was that we were using a contractor to build our cabin, but this lady’s son was building his with his own bare hands.

His own bare hands.

A few months after that Cindy and I, along with her parents who had already met Art by that time, met Art for the first time over breakfast at Joey’s Pancake House in Maggie Valley. I remember how surprised I was by his appearance. Having been told that he had cut down trees on his property by himself, had stripped their bark off and cut them to the lengths he needed, had cleared large rocks and leveled an area that provided a wonderful view of the western end of Maggie Valley from 5,000 feet up the mountain, well I expected to meet a man who was at least 6’4” weighing 300 pounds and all of it muscle. Art was maybe 5’ 10”, weighed less than 180 pounds, and was lean with a runner’s build. With his wire-rimmed glasses, he looked more intellectual than outdoorsman. Yet, as I was to discover, he was both.

Art Littlefield and Cindy at the door to his cabin in Maggie Valley.

Art and Cindy at the door to his cabin in Maggie Valley.

Over the next few years, we saw each other every few months. He was spending a lot of time coming up to Maggie Valley from his home in Melbourne, Florida to work on the cabin, hike around the area and bringing his family up to visit. After a year or so, he finished the one-room cabin with a sleeping loft above the room and a small storage area underground beneath the room.

When our cabin was completed, I believe he was the first or second friend we had over for dinner. He brought a beautiful photo of a nearby waterfall that was framed, signed, and numbered by the photographer, as a housewarming gift. Over the years, we enjoyed several dinners with him at our cabin and many additional breakfasts at Joey’s. He was always welcome to  use our shower or our guest room when it was cold. He occasionally took us up on the shower offer, but never on the use of the guest room. He liked his own cabin, and who could blame him? He, along with his wife and sons, came and spent the Christmas holidays at our cabin one year while we were in Florida, and we heard so many funny stories from that visit. He and Cindy and I hiked around to the other side of Sheepback Mountain one time when he was up visiting. And he was always adding improvements to his cabin, many times with the help of his nephew Chris or friends from Florida. He eventually added a wood burning stove, some furniture and even put in a sun-shower to give him at least some warm water. If Cindy and I went up to our cabin, we would go by and check on his, and he did the same for us if he was up at his cabin. He was one of only a few people who knew where we hid the cabin key. When he had a big family celebration in Maggie Valley one year at a nearby hotel, he graciously invited Cindy and I and her parents who were  up visiting to attend. We had a very nice time. Art was just one of those people that I enjoyed being around, and for those who know me, those kinds of people are few and far between.

From left to right: Art, me, Cindy, Cindy's mom and dad, in the parking lot of Joey's Pancake House, October, 2014.

From left to right: Art, me, Cindy, Cindy’s mom and dad, in the parking lot of Joey’s Pancake House, October 2014.

One of the main things I will always remember about Art was his smile. His smile always grew from his mouth, traveled to his eyes and then spread across his entire face. His attitude, his demeanor, his very body language and presence, if you will, was always one of courtesy, patience, kindness and…the best word I can come up with is encouragement. He was, simply put, one of the finest human beings I have had the pleasure of knowing and the honor of having in my life.

Cindy says the way to keep him alive is to remember all of these good things about him and to hold those memories in our heart. She’s probably right. But I can’t help but realize that we will never have the chance to make any more memories with Art, and that breaks my heart.

R.I.P. Art Littlefield. The world is a much poorer place without you in it, and our lives are barer without you in them.

Last Friday, while I was still in Florida, Cindy and I drove down to Clearwater to take my brother and his family to lunch for his birthday. It was the first time we’d been together for his birthday since we were kids. But I’ll write another post about that later.

This post is about my wonderful sister-in-law, Pia. And the kind of thoughtfulness that can only be defined by the deed.

For many, many  Christmases, until a couple of years before she passed away in 2010, our mom would always make Mark and I a fruitcake. I could never really understand all the jokes people made about the inedible qualities of a fruitcake until I tried a Claxton fruitcake one year and found getting down even one bite of it to be a struggle. If that was what people thought a fruitcake tasted like, then I could understand the jokes. My mom’s fruitcake tasted good and I would enjoy a slice as dessert after meals (and sometimes as a mid-day snack) for a couple of weeks after Christmas. The only drawback I could ever find was that sometimes, especially as she got older and making one became harder, the fruitcake would be a tad dry. But that was easy to overlook because, having observed her making them when I was living at home as a child, I knew the love that went into each one. That love made up for any dryness that might happen.

Since her illness and subsequent passing, I had resigned myself to the truth that I would never have another fruitcake like that again.

So you can probably imagine my surprise when, while we exchanging some gifts as we talked and laughed and visited, Pia said she had something for me. She said she knew how much Mark and I enjoyed mom’s fruitcakes and that she had asked my mom for her recipe and that mom had given it to her years ago. But that she had never used it because, while she loves to cook, she never considered herself a baker. However, this year she had made one for Mark and one for me. She also did something my Baptist mother would have never done; she soaked it in rum (which, believe me, eliminated ANY dryness, lol). She gave it to me to bring back to Orlando and made me promise that I would tell her the truth about whether it was any good or not once I had a chance to taste it.

My mother-in-law and I enjoy the delicious fruitcake my sister-in-law Pia made.I got my first taste of it Saturday night when, as you can see from the photo, I shared some with my mother-in-law.

So Pia, here’s the truth.

That was a damn good fruitcake! And it was made all the better and tastier because of your thoughtfulness in wanting to give two boys a reminder of how much that fruitcake meant each Christmas. Thank you.

I wrapped up half of it (as much as I could fit in my carryon) in aluminum foil and placed it inside a gallon ziploc bag, so I could bring it to South Dakota with me to enjoy for a few more days. The rest I left for others to enjoy in Orlando.

And so the visit and the lunch and the gift-exchanging and the sheer joy and happiness of getting to spend my brother’s birthday with him were made even more touching because of the thoughtfulness of a sister-in-law.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go have another slice of that fruitcake. :)

Happy New Year, 2016! Best wishes for a year of peace, love, happiness and success for you and yours.

Happy New Year 2016

Last night I finished rewatching all 29 episodes of Star Trek – The Original Series Season One.

Earlier this year a good friend of mine told me about a set of books, “These Are The Voyages – TOS”, covering the three seasons that comprised Star Trek – The Original Series. I was, to say the least, intrigued. I watched the original Star Trek as a kid on TV each week as it aired; then again when it began enjoying a resurgence through re-runs several years later (even though the episodes were hacked edited to make room for more commercials on the stations that aired them). I’ve attended Star Trek conventions, probably read almost every book written about the series and several by the principal characters. I’ve been gifted with DVDs of episodes from the Original Series and my love of the Original Series spurred my interest in the various incarnations of the Star Trek mythos.

These Are The Voyages TOS Season One

So I was a little bit skeptical that these books would be anything other than a rehash of information I was already aware of, but I added them to my Amazon Wishlist anyway. On my birthday this year, Cindy’s mom and dad gave me the first two volumes. Have I mentioned how wonderful they are?

And if I thought these might be nothing but rehashes, well boy was I wrong.

Don’t misunderstand, there is a lot of background information, in at least the first volume which covers the first season, that I DID know already. But there was also A LOT that I did not know.

This first volume contains 658 pages dealing with the events leading up to the creation of Star Trek; detailed, behind the scenes information; new interviews with those who were there during production, filming and editing; exhaustive, episode-by-episode histories; memos and never-before-seen photos.

As the back cover states, “These Are The Voyages…will take you back in time and put you in the producers’ offices, the writers’ room, onto the soundstages, and in front of your TV sets…”

In the words of Mr. Spock, “Indeed.”

Since Netflix has Star Trek – The Original Series available to stream, I decided several weeks ago to combine my reading of the first volume with rewatching each episode of Season One. I would read the chapter on the episodes in the order they were filmed and, as I finished each chapter, I would then watch the episode. It was more fun than a barrel of phasers set to stun!

I’ve seen these episodes multiple times in the past 50 years since they first aired, but I watched them with a new awareness and eye for detail as I looked for scenes that now contained either on-screen issues I had not previously noticed (mostly continuity issues like uniform problems or fight sequences) or with a new appreciation for what was presented because I knew what the writers, producers, performers, cameramen or editors had to go through to achieve (or fail to achieve) what I was looking at 5 decades later.

In a strange bit of serendipity, I was at the bookstore a couple of weeks ago and from across the room saw this book, “The Autobiography of James T. Kirk” in a display. I tried to appear to be casually strolling over to the display, but the people I knocked out of the way may disagree with my description of how I behaved. Don’t worry, they’ll be fine.

The Autobiography of James T. Kirk

I bought the book, brought it back to the hotel, and began reading it. Soon, I was at the point in the autobiography that coincided with where I was in my reading of “These Are The Voyages” and viewing of the episodes. It was a copacetic experience to be reading the behind the scenes accounts, watching the episodes and reading the “autobiography” of the fictional Captain Kirk in the same order.

But soon the autobiography moved ahead of the first season and the magical experience came to an end. I finished “The Autobiography of James T. Kirk” last night as well and enjoyed it tremendously. I have plans to gift it to the same friend that told me about “Star Trek – The Original Series” for the holidays this year.

If you’re a fan of Star Trek, especially The Original Series, then you’ll want to get these 3 volumes and enjoy the excitement all over again.

 

Here in Hot Springs, South Dakota, I picked up my Thanksgiving Day dinner tonight. Turkey and all the fixin’s, though I do need to find a piece of pumpkin pie…

Lean Cuisine Turkey and Vegetables Frozen Dinner

I am one of those people who love Christmas time, but I am also one of those people who complains about the early onset of the Holiday season when it shows up in stores and ads before Halloween is even over.

But, for the past two weeks when I’ve gone grocery shopping I’ve taken a long, slow look at the dairy case, in particular the milk shelves, searching for the nectar of the gods that most people know as Egg Nog, and today I found it.

Carton of egg nog

 

I’ve never tried Land O’ Lakes brand, but since they don’t sell my favorite T.G. Lee brand here in the Black Hills of South Dakota and this was the only kind on the shelf, I’ll have to give it a try.
And as far as I’m concerned…the Holiday Season has officially arrived!

On Halloween night 1998, Cindy dressed as a wench and I as Satan himself.

Jeff as Satan and Cindy as a wench.

Next Monday my younger brother Mark and his beautiful wife Pia celebrate their 30th Wedding Anniversary. In honor of that momentous event, today’s Throwback Thursday takes us back to my brother Mark’s wedding with photos of my brother and I with our parents and a smaller photo with our maternal grandmother.

Jeff, Mark, Dad & Mom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark, Nana, & Jeff

 

 

 

 

Happy, Happy 30th Anniversary to two of the best people I know in the world!

Note: I originally wrote this as a single post, but it turned out to be much too long for a single reading, so I divided it up into 4 parts; 1 for each artist. Part 1 contains my intro to the article and features Jack Kirby. Part 2 features John Byrne. Part 3 features John Romita, Sr.

Mount Rushmore of Comic Book Artists; Jack Kirby, John Byrne, John Romita, Sr. and Neal Adams

Neal AdamsNeal Adams – I don’t know of another comic book artist who made more of a splash when he entered the industry than Neal Adams. Technically, most comic book artists of that era would be called cartoonists. That’s how many of them referred to themselves and it’s how a lot of “artists” in other fields referred to them. I picked up a book one time entitled “How To Be a Cartoonist” and part of the book dealt with comic book artwork, specifically superheroes. If I think “cartoonist” I’m thinking Mighty Mouse, Casper The Friendly Ghost, and most of the comic strips in national syndication, so using that term for comic book artists was always confusing to me. But that’s the way it was.

Neal Adams was by no means a cartoonist. Adams was, more accurately, an illustrator. And as an illustrator his realistic art in a comic book was like a bomb had been dropped in the industry.

adams_warren

Click to embiggen

Adams had done artwork previously for Warren Comics which published titles like Creepy and Eerie, but I never saw those books because they were magazine format books, not comic format books, and I don’t believe the Rexall Drug store or 7-11 convenience store even carried them because of the nature of the stories. I would not discover them until years later when I visited a real newsstand and magazine store near my high school.

Cover to Action Comics 356The first time I saw Adam’s work in a comic book (or more accurately, “on” a comic book) was the cover of Action Comics 356, which was his first work for a mainstream comic book company, DC Comics. Honestly, I don’t recall being overly excited about the cover. You can see the seeds of what will become the “Adams style” in that cover, but there’s really not much that stands out.

All the comic book databases I checked out list Adams as the cover artist, with no separate inker mentioned, so that probably means Adams inked his own pencils. My feeling, especially about Adams’ inking of his own pencils in his early career, was that they were sometimes hit or miss in their effectiveness. I think this first cover was one of the misses.

Cover of Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane #79That same month, Adams would do the cover for another title I collected, Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane 79 and here the image is pure Adams. The casual slouch of Superman, the massive physique of Titanman, the diminutive figure of Lois and the even smaller figure of the reverend, combined with the absolutely atmospheric effect of sun rays streaming from the top right corner all combine to make you feel like you’re sitting on the church pew next to Superman watching this scene unfold. I think the biggest change for fans of Superman is that he no longer looks like a mass of muscle shapes, but actually looks like he has the realistic muscular physique of a real man. In fact, all of Adams’ figures would look much more realistic than fans were ever used to seeing when they read a comic book.

 

 

Page from Elongated Man story by Neal Adams

Click to embiggen

Adams got his first complete story assignment as penciller for The Elongated Man back up series in Detective Comics 369, which was also the flagship title for Batman, a  hint of things to come. You can see how Adams employs his photorealistic style and his habit of using different angles and points of view to bring an unusual amount of action and perspective to his art. He then went on to draw several issues of Deadman (which became a breakout fan favorite and resulted in Adams being inducted into the Alley Award Hall of Fame), as well as stories and covers for The Spectre and Teen Titans.

Then Adams did something that was almost unheard of at the time; while still doing freelance work for DC Comics, he also began doing freelance work for Marvel Comics as he became the artist on the X-Men title under his own name. Other artists had worked for both companies at the same time, but never under their own names. They always used a pseudonym when working for the other company. Neal Adams set a precedent by doing freelance work for multiple companies at the same time under his own name. He was teamed with inker Tom Palmer and the two went on to win many awards for their work together. Adams would go on to do work on The Avengers and would contribute to two of Marvel’s horror anthology titles; Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness.

X-Men splash page by Neal Adams

In the early 1970’s, Adams and writer Dennis O’Neil would team up to revitalize and rejuvenate the character of Batman for DC Comics. Gone were the campy, cartoony style stories of the 60’s and the popular TV series. Batman became The Batman, a serious, brooding character who solved cases as the greatest detective on earth. No more goofiness, no more silliness. The Batman returned to his roots, as did his villains. The Joker was no longer a joke, he was a raving homicidal maniac who would not hesitate to murder his victims. And The Batman gained new, more appropriate villains, such as Ra’s al Ghul.

Batman and Ra's al Ghul by Neal Adams

At the same time, Adams and O’Neil were also revamping two other DC character; Green Lantern and Green Arrow, by combining them in their own book and sending them across the country in what were described by some as “relevance stories” in which they would engage the common causes of the time such as pollution, racism, drug addiction, religion, and overpopulation.

Cover of Green Lantern & Green Arrow 85 by Neal Adams

Adams continued doing work for both comic book companies throughout the 1970’s on such titles as Brave and Bold, SupermanJustice League of America, House of Mystery, Action Comics, and Avengers.

Various covers by Neal Adams

In 1978, Adams wrote and drew his last complete story for DC Comics when he created the oversized format Superman vs Muhammad Ali; a book he has often declared to be one of his favorite works. The wrap-around cover of celebrity appearances alone was so meticulous and detailed that they had to put a “map” inside showing who each celebrity was and where. The story was an interesting and plausible (for comic books) one and contained some of the best illustrations and artwork that Adams had ever produced.

Wraparound cover of Superman vs Muhammad Ali by Neal Adams

Shortly after that, Adams formed Continuity Associates, an art and illustration studio, with fellow illustrator Dick Giordano. Adams continued to provide occasional covers and posters for comic books through the years, as well as publishing his own line of comic books, Continuity Comics, with such titles as Ms. Mystic, Bucky O’Hare, and Megalith, among others.

Ms. Mystic and Megalith covers by Neal Adams

In recent  years, Adams has returned to do work for both DC Comics (Batman:Odyssey, Batman:Black and White, and Detective Comics) and Marvel Comics (The New Avengers and The First X-Men).

Bonus: best inker for Neal Adams’ pencils would be a toss-up between Tom Palmer and Dick Giordano, with a slight edge going to Palmer.

So there’s my fourth choice for my Mt. Rushmore of comic book artists. If you missed parts 1, 2 or 3, you can read them by clicking on the hyperlinks above for their respective numbers.

Do you have different feelings about who YOU would place on your Mt. Rushmore of comic book artists? Let me know in the comments!

Note: I originally wrote this as a single post, but it turned out to be much too long for a single reading, so I divided it up into 4 parts; 1 for each artist. Part 1 contains my intro to the article and features Jack Kirby. Part 2 features John Byrne.

Mt. Rushmore of Comic Book Artists - Jack Kirby, John Byrne and John Romita, Sr.

John Romita, Sr.John Romita, Sr. – I’m being sure to add the “Sr.” because, unfortunately, I do NOT care for the art of his son, John Romita, Jr. or “JRR” as he’s known, and I do not want anyone to think I mean his son when I mean Sr., the father, the true legend.

The Amazing Spider-Man #39 cover by John Romita, Sr.My first exposure to the art of John Romita, Sr. came when I picked The Amazing Spider-Man #39 off the spinner rack at the Rexall Drug store my mom frequented. The change in art style from what I was used to seeing was jolting!

I was already a huge fan of Spider-Man and it was one of the titles I looked for every month. I liked the artwork of regular Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko, but then his were pretty much the only drawings I’d ever seen of Spider-Man. However, in the mid-60’s even a 10 year-old like myself knew that his depictions of fashion and hair styles were woefully out of date, with most characters looking like they had dressed from a wardrobe closet in the early to mid-50’s. Because of that, Ditko’s people and scenes usually looked almost surreal, even the everyday scenes taking place at school or work or on the street. Still, Ditko’s panel layouts and fight scenes were unbelievably good; looking like the action might very well spill off the page and into your lap as you were reading. Years later when I was older I would conclude that Ditko was perfect for a title like Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, where magic and weird realms or dimensions were the setting for most stories, but maybe not so perfect for stories that were anchored in the real world.

John Romita, Sr. and Stan Lee

Stan Lee, left and “Jazzy” John Romita, right; going over a page of comic book art.

At the time, I had no idea of the reasons behind the change in artists (and did not know that Ditko was also doing almost all of the plotting, under the direction of Stan Lee, who also scripted each story), but years later I would discover that there had been friction between Lee and Ditko about the direction of the title and, more specifically, who would be revealed as the person underneath the mask of The Green Goblin, one of Spider-Man’s most formidable foes. When Lee made it clear who the villain would turn out to be and Ditko did not like it, Ditko decided to leave the book and issue #38 was his last as artist. But again, as a 10-year old at the time, all I knew was that suddenly the art on Spider-Man looked different…and maybe even better.

Captain America #78 cover by John Romita, Sr.John Romita, Sr. had been a comic book artist since 1949, working on titles like the Captain America of the 1950’s, science fiction titles, and romance books, but this was all before I would lay eyes on his work. All I knew at the time was that Spider-Man had changed from a spindly little guy to someone who, while not muscle-bound, was now a hero who looked like he was in shape. And all around him the world he inhabited now looked like the world I lived in, instead of scenes from an old TV series from the 50’s that they used to remind me of.

And that was in spite of the fact that Romita, as he would later confess in interviews, did his best at first to mimic Ditko’s style because he thought that he would only be on the book for an issue or two and then Ditko would return. He could not fathom that the lead artist on one of Marvel’s top-selling titles would leave the book and not return. In spite of his trying to keep Ditko’s style on the book, Romita’s own wonderful talent would shine through on every page, especially so when, after about 6 issues, Romita would realize that Steve Ditko was NOT coming back and he began to work more and more in his own style. One critic would later say that Romita moved Spider-Man into the mainstream, the real world we all lived in, and that only increased the character’s popularity. Indeed, under Romita, The Amazing Spider-Man would surpass Marvel’s flagship title, The Fantastic Four, in sales; something no other Marvel title had accomplished at that point.

The Amazing Spider-Man #50 cover by John Romita, Sr.John Romita, Sr. would go on to pencil and/or ink over 100 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man alone. The Romita Sr. Spider-Man of my pre-teen, teen and young adult years would be the Spider-Man imprinted on my mind and my life. To date, no one but John Byrne has come close to moving John Romita, Sr. off the pedestal he has inhabited as my favorite Spider-Man artist.

Captain America #144 cover by John Romita, Sr.But Romita wasn’t just drawing Spider-Man all those years. He did stories and covers for Captain America, The Hulk, The Avengers, and others. He is credited with designing or helping to design characters like The Kingpin, The Shocker, Luke Cage, The Punisher, and Bullseye. In 1973 he became the Art Director for Marvel Comics, making sure that characters looked like they were supposed to look, even if he had to re-draw a few faces because an artist didn’t get the look right. More than anyone else, Romita set the “house” style of Marvel in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. But he also helped new artists establish their own style while teaching them how to make panels and covers get the idea of the story across to readers in the best possible way.

 

Various  John Romita, Sr. covers

John Romita, Sr. is the only one of my Mt. Rushmore of Comic Book Artists that I’ve ever met in person. If I’m remembering correctly (and I may not be; I swear my memory is worse than Stan Lee’s sometimes), it was at a comic book convention that used to be held at the Bob Carr Convention Center in downtown Orlando, long before MegaCon came along. Anyway, what really matters is that Mr. Romita was courteous, friendly and seemed genuinely flattered when I told him how much his artwork had meant to me over the years. I’m sure he (and other artists) get that all the time, but you would have thought no one ever told him that before. He graciously autographed some of my items and I walked away smiling and happy at having met one of my favorite comic book artists.

Bonus: best inker for Romita’s pencils was a toss-up for me between Mike Esposito (Mickey Demeo) and Jim Mooney.

So there’s my third choice for my Mt. Rushmore of comic book artists. Stay tuned for part 4, or subscribe so you won’t miss it.

%d bloggers like this: