My Writers: Carl Hiaasen

strip tease

Image taken, as always, from Library Thing.

I lived in Florida for six years. Before I got there, Carl Hiaasen acquainted me with the haphazard charms of the Sunshine State. More precisely, he sketched out just how much craziness resided on that over-baked peninsula.

As was the case with many of the authors whose wares I first sampled in the nineteen-nineties, I arrived at Hiaasen because of the movies. With some regularity, I bought novels that the entertainment press informed me were being adapted in high-profile films. I liked having the comparison at the ready when it came time to deliver my movie review, even if most of those exercises in criticism were mostly being delivered to friends over the phone or this new-fangled communication method called electronic mail.

Hiaasen’s 1993 novel, Strip Tease, was being made in a movie that borrowed the name but oddly omitted the space. Striptease was preemptively famous — or maybe a little infamous — because the lead role, a stripper named Erin Grant, had been bestowed upon Demi Moore, who got a dump truck full of money backed up to her house in exhange from the promise of doffing her top. As intended, that built some buzz around the project. Thankfully, enough of the chatter took pains to insist to the potentially interested that Hiaasen’s novel was quite good.

The movie proved to be a bust at the box office — and pretty lousy — but the appreciative assessments of the novel were spot on. Strip Tease is sharp, funny, slyly insightful, and plotted with purposeful expertise. It reads like a classic Elmore Leonard crime novel with a loonier edge. It’s hard to scrape together grander praise.

I return to Hiaasen’s novels from time to time after that, always engaged and amused. And, almost with fail, my perception of his native Florida was solidified with every page. I was certain the state was colorful, off-kilter, and many a little dangerous, if only because just enough people there operated as if  the very concept of consequences didn’t cross the border from neighboring states. Hiaasen’s investigative takedown of the Disney corporation, Team Rodent, compounds this thesis while showing off his reporter’s chops from his formative days at Cocoa Today and his longtime day job at the Miami Herald.

If the creative vision of Hiaasen didn’t quite match up with my personal experience in Florida, it’s probably for the best. But maybe his bracing assessment of his fellow well-tanned citizens helped me properly prepare for my days there, recalibrating the strangely sensational into comparative acceptable following my time tracing the exploits of those characters bounding across the page.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

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The Art of the Sell: The League of Honest Coffee Lovers

 

coffee

Borrowed from an eBay listing, so this beauty is available for purchase.

Because on weary days like this one, I believe this is indeed a flag I would march under.

MORE COFFEE IN OUR COFFEE OR FIGHT!

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 28 – 26

28 country

28. Big Country, “In a Big Country”

When trying to introduce a band to an international audience, there are worse strategies that releasing an anthemic single that has the group’s name right there in the title. “In a Big Country” wasn’t the first single from the Scottish band Big Country, but it was the first to get them significant attention in the U.S. (Its predecessor, “Fields of Fire (400 Miles),” was a Top 10 hit in the U.K., a level “In a Big Country” didn’t reach.) Officially considered the third single from the band’s 1983 debut album, The Crossing, the track was inspired by the plight of the downtrodden in Big Country’s native land. “The idea for ‘In a Big Country’ came from seeing the unemployed maintain their sense of humor and pride, which is hard when you’re living on fourteen pounds a week,” lead singer Stuart Adamson told Musician. “You have to have something to believe in.” Although the band espoused a preference to steer clear of the pointedly political in their music, they did have a general goal of shifting societal outlook in a dour time. “We like to make people feel important, give them hope and optimism … even if the lyrics are not always ‘up,'” Adamson explained at the time. “You see, as far as I’m concerned, people who buy our records or come to our gigs are as much a part of the group as us. Without them, there wouldn’t be a Big Country. That’s why you’ll never find us shooting off after a show and playing the horrible pop star game. Just because I’ve been on television, it doesn’t make me a better person than the next man.”

 

27 balloon

27. Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, “Balloon Man”

Iconoclastic British troubadour Robyn Hitchcock has enough of a reputation for penning songs about items that might cross a dinner plate that a 2007 documentary about his life and work was entitled Sex, Food, Death…and Insects. In the case of the song that probably still stands as his biggest U.S. hit — although let’s go ahead and put “hit” in quotes — food was indeed the direct inspiration. “That was based on real life: eating a falafel walking up 6th Ave from 34th to 44th in a rain storm,” Hitchcock said of the song “Balloon Man.” “You can still do that legally today.” Although the track — which was released as the lead single from Globe of Frogs, Hitchcock’s 1988 album with backing band the Egyptians — is strongly associated with the man who wrote it, his initial intent was to give it away. “Well, ‘Balloon Man’ I wrote for The Bangles, if you remember them,” explained Hitchcock. “I was in touch with a couple of them, and I sent them a quarter-inch, 7.5 IPS reel. I don’t know if they did anything with it. Probably not, I guess.” With the song sitting idle, unloved by the pop goddesses who were likely busy counting their walking Egyptian money, Hitchcock took a pass at it while revving up for his major label debut. The executives at A&M Records loved the song, urging him to record a fleshed-out version for the album.

 

26 suzanne

26. Lou Reed, “I Love You, Suzanne”

There’s a justifiable legend around Lou Reed and his music, insisting that it’s always edgy and grim. There have been times, however, when Reed was going for something different. One of those instances came with the 1984 album New Sensations. “I wanted to have fun with it,” Reed said. “And there were certain sounds that I heard on the radio — a certain kind of bass and drum thing, for instance — that were really strong and exciting, and I really wanted hear that.” Even as Reed acknowledged the shift in his song, his prickly nature couldn’t quite allow him to say he was openly pursuing commercial success. Instead, he insisted it was close to a Velvet Underground record because he was back to playing all of the guitar parts. There was also the suggestion that he had always wanted his music to have a nice polished sound. “In the days of the Velvet Underground, recording engineers would hear what we did and leave,” he said. “They’d say, ‘I’ll come back when you’re finished,’ turn on the tape machine, and go. So I got this attitude that engineers were my enemy, and the way we recorded reflected that.” Bypassing his usual mode of making quick, dirty recordings of songs then releasing them with little studio adornment, Reed worked with producer John Jansen (who’d later preside over albums by the likes of Cinderella and Warrant) to develop tracks that wouldn’t sound wholly out of place when played in the confines of a downtown discotheque. Released as a single, lead track “I Love You, Suzanne” didn’t exactly turn Reed into a dance hall diva. About the only chart success it enjoyed — apart from college radio, of course — was in the U.K., where made some modest rumblings, becoming Reed’s first song to make any headway there in over a decade.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Bay Day

Nine years ago today, I conducted an experiment in masochism. The particulars are explained well enough below, so I’ll not offer no additional retrospective preamble. Enjoy my pain.

In the summer of 1998, my partner-in-all-things and I were vacationing in Colorado. As we’re prone to do, we took some of our spare time to go and see a movie. Since we were in the mood for something fun and light–a junk food movie, if you will–we ventured to a nearby theater and saw Armageddon, Michael Bay’s third feature and his follow-up to the flawed-but-mindlessly-entertaining The Rock.

My old colleague in movie criticism once talked about the sensation of so loathing a movie while you watch it that if the director happened to be sitting next to you in the theater you would feel compelled to spin around and punch him (or her, but disproportionately him) square in the face. That’s exactly how I felt watching Armageddon. I despised it and despised Michael Bay for making it. As I finally, blessedly left the theater, I swore I would never again watch a Michael Bay movie. Ten years later, that pledge is retracted today in the most brutal fashion I can imagine.

Since Armageddon, Michael Bay has directed four features: Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II, The Island, and Transformers. Today, I’m going to watch them all. In succession. And I’m bringing you all with me, live-blogging all the way.

I’m planning to post regularly as I go, definitely after each film with a few observations scattered throughout. Keep watching this space. Unless the general critical consensus about Bay’s artistry is off-base, today is going to get ugly.

pearl harbor

9:39 a.m.: Ten minutes into Pearl Harbor and it’s already piled up a bunch of scenes that feel as phony as an Oscar with Josh Hartnett’s name engraved on it. Alec Baldwin has had one scene thus far and his acting is spectacularly, beautifully, deliciously awful. He’s in that breathy, quickly rhythmic mode that would eventually morph into the genuinely wonderful happy-self-parody that is Jack Donaghy.

10:24 a.m.: Bay just unspooled his first significant action set piece, a dog fight over the ocean. Considering one of my major complaints about Bay’s work is his tendency to cut his film up like confetti and reassemble it in a nonsensical manner (there are sequences in Armageddon that are practically subliminal in their capability to actually convey information), it actually held together fairly well. The subsequent boxing match that introduced Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s character was a horrid mess, though. The cloyingly portentous music score is so bad, I had to look up who was the perpetrator of it. Hans Zimmer. Of course.

11:01 a.m.: Colm Feore is playing Admiral Kimmel with such a mannered approach that it’s a little like he’s playing the military man as a transmogrified duck.

11:10 a.m.: Dan Aykroyd (as a member of military intelligence) is being saddled with all the most impossible lines, such as this moment, reading off a communique: “‘Broken relations — hostilities imminent.’ But where?” It should be no surprise that his acting acumen isn’t enough to pull those lines off with any authority.

11:25 a.m.: Most directors use slow motion to enhance their storytelling or to highlight certain important moments. Michael Bay uses it because he’s in love with his own image construction. Watching the empty spectacle of the actual attack on Pearl Harbor, which is somehow devoid of any sense of real urgency, is reminding me of how much I actually hate — genuinely hate — the way he puts together movies.

11:57 a.m.: This thing is so fuckin’ long (and pointlessly so) that I have to switch to a second DVD to see the end of it.

12:01 p.m.: Man, Michael Bay sure loves shooting the wheels of F.D.R.’s wheelchair. “I like sub commanders. They don’t have time for bullshit and neither do I.” This screenplay is astounding.

12:09 p.m.: “There’s only one more thing I can tell you — keep your goddamn hula shirts at home.” And so Alec Baldwin reenters the picture.

12:41 p.m.: Kate Beckinsale is getting passed around between the two leads like a bong in a Cheech and Chong movie.

12:43 p.m.: DONE. One down, three to go. (Three more? Ohmygod, what have I done?) Here’s a key problem with Michael Bay as a filmmaker, illustrated painfully by this film: he has no apparently ability to differentiate between the tone and construction of specific scenes. The love scenes, military planning scenes, debates inside the White House, quiet moments between characters — all are put together with the same bludgeoning, overly orchestrated approach that’s suited to the big action set pieces. It leads to such a monotony of style that even those action scenes start to feel drained and dull. And when half of the three hours — three hours that are ungodly in their endless feel — are turned over to grandiose, Titanic-styled romance, he fares even worse because he seems to have as clear of an understanding of human emotion as a Vulcan might. It’s also worth noting that I never thought I’d see a worse Alec Baldwin performance that the one he gives in The Juror. I laughed harder at him here than I do in the average episode of 30 Rock. And I think he’s pretty damned funny in the average episode of 30 Rock.

bad boys ii

12:57 p.m.: “Ecstasy Lab — Amsterdam.” And so we begin Bad Boys II.

1:03 p.m.: So far, we’ve already got Henry Rollins as a narcotics officer and Will Smith and Martin Lawrence undercover at a Klan rally. Oh boy.

1:08 p.m.: There was just a “funny” exchange about Martin Lawrence getting shot in the ass. Yeah, it’s time for beer.

1:31 p.m.: Now this sequence is so typical of Michael Bay that I half expect his signature to get drawn electronically across the screen at the end. It’s a car chase that’s so frenetically edited, poorly staged and filled with shots that are so awkwardly framed that it’s borderline indecipherable. “That one almost puckered up my butthole,” Will Smith just announced. Who says we’re not in a golden age of screenwriting?

1:48 p.m.: These cops make Dirty Harry look like Leo Buscaglia.

1:56 p.m.: Bad Boys II has already had an embarrassing assemblage of horrid and exploitative depictions of women, and now it’s added an incredibly offensive scene that generates its humor by having a store full of people misinterpret a conversation between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as a discussion of especially rough gay sex (this calls back to the part where Lawrence got shot in the ass). The structure of the joke was old and stale back when it was getting used on a Three’s Company episode some thirty years ago. That also seems about the era that the stereotypical gays who watch and comment on the conversation would be considered at all acceptable. Bay’s films have previously been bad, poorly put together, insipid — but I don’t recall them being hateful and derogatory. How about that? A new low!

2:20 p.m.: When a character from the opening sequence in brought back into the film, Bay felt compelled to insert a flashback explaining his identity. This despite the fact that completely clear exposition had already done that less than five minutes earlier.

2:37 p.m.: And here’s a lovely scene in which Lawrence and Smith viciously harass a fifteen-year-old boy who has shown up to take Lawrence’s daughter on a date, including Smith shoving a gun into the boy’s face. And punctuated by a another joke predicated on the horrors of homosexual intercourse. So charming.

3:21 p.m.: DONE. Two out of four complete. Only halfway. Unbelievable. Pearl Harbor at least provided some amusement in its pretentious ineptitude, but Bad Boys II is numbing in its generic bang and clatter. Most of the character moments or, god help me, comic relief inserted between the carefully calibrated explosions are mindless at best, reprehensible at worst. I saw the first Bad Boys upon its release and can remember nothing of it now. Hopefully, the defense mechanisms within my mind will promptly provide the same generous excavation with the sequel.

MCDISLA EC005

4:00 p.m.: After a brief break to walk the dogs and, yes, soothe my wounded brain with a brief dose of Arrested Development, I begin The Island.

4:14 p.m.: Ewan McGregor just threw a little tantrum talking to one of the staff members running his highly controlled society. To be fair, he’s right. White is impossible to keep clean. I’m hoping this movie winds up being nothing but a science fiction quest to get more bacon. Now that’s a promising premise.

4:30 p.m.: It’s nice to see that the ultra-futuristic holodeck styled gaming system that the residents of future city play comes complete with a gigantic, fully-recognizable X-Box logo.

4:52 p.m.: Uh oh. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson just discovered the set for Coma 2: Futurecoma. That’s going to generate some concerns for them. Considering action sequences are supposed to be Bay’s expertise, he sure stages some boring chase scenes.

5:02 p.m.: Unless they offer some further clarification later, the explanation just offered for why the “products” played by McGregor, Johansson and others are brought to life instead of just stored away in the pods where they begin makes no sense at all. I’m not expecting this to have the verisimilitude of a documentary, but, Jesus, at least come up with a premise that can hold up to its own internal logic.

5:13 p.m.: Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson just walked by an abandoned motel with graffiti on it that says “LIFE SUCKS.” I would like to add “…especially if you decided to watch approximately two-thirds of Michael Bay’s directorial filmography in a single sitting.”

5:18 p.m.: Bay clearly finds the Three’s Company mix-up humor combined with gay panic jokes absolutely hysterical, because here it is again. Quite an enlightened guy, our director.

5:26 p.m.: “I know you’re new to this whole human experience thing, but there’s one universal truth: you never give a woman your credit card.” Ha ha! Seriously, does this guy think he’s making a movie in about 1960?

5:39 p.m.: You know what livens up a highway car chase? Dropping big, heavy things off a moving Mack truck. Bay apparently liked it so much when he did it in Bad Boys II that he brought the trick back in The Island. Does he have no shame? Or, is it that he has no recognition of his own redundancy?

6:18 p.m.: It’s especially painful when Bay starts to infuse some intellectual pondering into his work. The little dribs and drabs of existential debate and shadows of genuine instances of man’s inhumanity to man don’t sit very well next to the empty-headed science-y fiction that fills the rest of the film. There’s plainly nothing he’s ever done that earns him any moral standing to include Holocaust symbolism into his work.

6:28 p.m.: DONE. Three out of four complete. Part of why I could never be a studio head is my incapability to predict that this would be Bay’s least successful film at the box office. “Well, it’s awful,” I’d say, “But so are his other ones. This’ll be a blockbuster, too, I guess.” The premise is so generically sci-fi that the film holds no surprises whatsoever. You start to just feel bad for the actors, especially Johannson, whose sole approach she can take to the character is to look at the world, to borrow from Bill Hicks, like a dog that’s just been shown a card trick. Bay’s directing isn’t as much of a shattered mosaic as it’s been previously, but the action scenes are still as diffused as the yolk in a plate of scrambled eggs.

Transformers

7:08 p.m.: Time for Transformers. Let’s finish this.

7:33 p.m.: Transforming robot cars can help you pick up girls. Whadya know?

7:37 p.m.: On the other hand, the car could use a little more creativity in picking songs to impress the girls. “Baby Come Back” when she’s walking away? Sheesh.

7:56 p.m.: That giant scorpion robot is sure tough. I’m running out of things to say about these ridiculous movies.

8:04 p.m.: I’ll give this to Shia LaBeouf: he’s the one person in this movie who’s delivering acting in reasonable accordance to a world in which malicious transforming robots suddenly showed up. Meaning, he’s totally freaked out. Of course, as I type this he’s switched over to being pretty comfortable with the robots, so maybe I made that observation too quickly.

8:37 p.m.: John Turturro shows up and decides he’s going to play his government agent character like Jesus Quintana without the accent. Of course, when a major gag involving your characters consists of getting pissed on (sorry, “lubricated”) by one of the Transformers, I suppose there’s no reason for subtlety.

9:09 p.m.: I suppose these battle sequences are impressive to somebody, but they just look like an indecipherable scrub-brush tangle of CGI to me. Michael Bay certainly makes long movies.

9:30 p.m.: DONE! Oh my god. To be fair, taking this material and making it into anything that reasonably approaches quality is inconceivable. Warring robots in space, fighting over a cube that holds the “All Spark”? A fleet of evil robots zipping around yelling “All hail Megatron”? If this is your raw material, creating a modern classic is beyond the capabilities of anyone’s moviemaking alchemy. Transformers is what it is and it’s difficult to conceive of anything more pointless than my complaints about it having an intellectual heft the equivalent of the storylines that ten-year-old jabberjaws came up in the backyard tractor tire sandbox when Hasbro spat out the original toys. This thing made enough people yell “awesome” in the theater that it was an overwhelming hit. I’m a-okay being on the outside looking in when it comes to the Transformers fan club. More than meets the eye? Not really.

THERE…I did it. I feel a little like someone installed a radio tuned between stations inside my skull, but I did it.

Now I think I should go read a book for awhile.

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One for Friday: The Woggles, “Get Tough”

woggles

Any travel is full of the unexpected, I suppose. It comes with traversing unfamiliar terrain. But my recent jaunt to the Pacific Northwest brought an especially jarring moment, although certainly not an unpleasant one.

While walking past one of the many makeshift kiosks wallpapers with club fliers, a familiar band name jumped out at me. It wasn’t some flannel-clad band of scruffy misfits I associated with my college radio years — that certainly would have been understandable given I was in the geographic corner of the nation that came to dominate left of the dial playlists when I was helping run a broadcast outlet between bouts undergraduate coursework. Instead, it was a group of garage rock grandmasters I happily remembered from my time living in the dirty ol’ south.

It was a friend of mine who resided below the Mason-Dixon line who first told me about the Woggles, and it was my partner-in-all-things who saw them first, insisting that we take any opportunity to see them live that was afforded us. The more the venue could claim to be a dive bar the better. The Woggles were a band that dependably –to borrow a favorite phrase from David Letterman — blew the roof off the dump any time they plugged in their amps.

We didn’t see them nearly as much as I would have liked, in part because our time in the prime touring area corresponded with the untimely passing of George Montague Holton, III, their ferocious guitarist. Understandably, the sad turn of events slowed down the band for a bit.

I hadn’t thought of them in years. And then there they were, their name emblazoned across a weather-worn sheet of paper, promising that they were still fighting the rock ‘n’ roll good fight. The show promoted took place after I would embark on a plane for home — it’s tomorrow night, in fact — but the possibility of seeing the Woggles again burst forth to me, like a cloud suddenly unleashing a heavy torrent of rain. The band is playing in my neck of the great north woods before the end of the summer. I might need to make some plans.

Listen or download –> The Woggles, “Get Tough”

(Disclaimer: Not only are the Woggles still a going concern, but they have wisely taken charge of their own commerce, it seems. I believe Get Tough! is out of print as an item that can be easily procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store, but it is available on the Woggles’ bandcamp page. Given that fact, today’s entry is meant as a mere sample and enticement to go and add some fantabulous garage rock to your personal collection. Even though I mean to encourage and not impede compensation for the band, I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Playing Catch-Up: The Hot Rock, Krisha, Tiger Shark

the hot rock

The Hot Rock (Peter Yates, 1972). This adaptation of a Donald Westlake novel — featuring a screenplay that was William Goldman’s first produced work following his Oscar win for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — is a lithe and cheeky heist film. Robert Redford plays John Dortmunder, a professional thief freshly released from his latest stay is prison. Mere minutes pass before he’s roped into a new scheme involving the theft of an African gem on display in the Brooklyn Museum. What follows is a series of setbacks — all smartly plausible — that require Dortmunder and his assembled squad to engage in increasingly elaborate schemes in a continued quest to secure the elusive stone. Yates directs with a unruffled briskness and the widescreen cinematography by Edward R. Brown captures early-seventies New York in all its picturesque squalor. If not every caper convinces, the filmmakers are appealingly committed enough to engender some forgiveness of narrative wobbles. And the film boasts Redford right in the heart of the prolonged peak of his movie star dazzle, when he could effortlessly hold the screen. He spends much of the film in a mode of beleaguered irritation — a Redford specialty — but the closing moments offer a reminder that, no matter how much the actor may have preferred otherwise, he was always at his most convincing when he’s strutting through a world that he’s decisively bested.

 

krisha

Krisha (Trey Edward Shults, 2015). Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is a woman returning to the family fold with a visible anxiety, as if worried about the volcano that’s sure to erupt at some point during the visit. The text is strictly domestic drama, mundane and recognizable. The visual presentation is a wonderfully florid and tensely edited, as if a skilled student was given the classroom assignment of repurposing a staid weepie into a fierce horror film. In shifting the parameters on how this sort of story can be staged, Shults (who also wrote the screenplay) taps into the deepest wells of roiling emotions the characters endure as the attempted reconciliation plays out as predictably doomed. Never has a tumbling pan of food been filmed with such a precise sense of fevered tragedy.

 

tiger shark

Tiger Shark (Howard Hawks, 1932). One of four films that Hawks directed (or co-directed) with a 1932 copyright date, Tiger Shark depicts the troubled tale of tuna boat captain Mike Mascarenhas (Edward G. Robinson). As the film begins, he’s blistering under the hard sun in a lifeboat. And then a shark bites off his hand. Things don’t necessarily get worse from there, but they don’t really get all that much better, either. The pulpy melodrama of the story has a certain allure, and its fascinating to watch this relatively early production strive for verisimilitude in its depiction of the brutality of having the ocean as a workplace. The biggest draw, though, is the performance of Robinson, doing inspired character work as the captain with a tendency to inflate his appeal and accomplishments. What could play as ego and delusion is instead built upon an endearing vulnerability.

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The Art of the Sell: Moon Knight

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

moon knight

I’ve long held an affection for Moon Knight, both the character and the nineteen-eighties comic book series preside over by writer Doug Moench and artist Bill Sienkiewicz. And yet every time I’ve gone back and perused an issue or two — with an entry in the “My Misspent Youth” feature in mind — I’ve found it to be difficult sledding. Even though I read a bunch of those comics back in my heavy-duty collecting days, the old panels stir few real memories.

Strange as it seems, I wonder if my recollection of the amazing coolness of Moon Knight stemmed less from the comics themselves and more from the advertising that probably drove me to them in the first place. Just look at that copy. “CIVILIZATION ITSELF SEEMS TO BE ONE LONG, AGONIZED SCREAM.” How could that not rattle my young brain. And then there’s the promise at the bottom: “FIFTY CENTS. WORTH IT.” Of course I felt like the coolest kid at the comic spinner when I grabbed my copy of Moon Knight. Who wouldn’t?

 

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

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June 2017
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