Sunday, February 24, 2008

The toy Steve Bissette wishes he had when he was five. It's only $300!

For the past five or six years now, I've been going to NYC to cover the Toy Fair as the industry is well represented here in Western Massachusetts. From a reporter's viewpoint it is always a fun but hard day – fun because the subject is interesting and hard as it's necessary to cram a whole lot of walking into one day to see enough of the show to write about it.

The Other Mark M. went with me as the company for which he works was exhibiting at the show. His impressions are over at his blog . It's always great to have some company.

Covering the fair can be overwhelming for a newbie if you don't have the structure of a beat. With thousands of toys the question of focus is always an issue.

Luckily I do have a beat – the local companies – and then another animation and off-beat stuff. This post is at a Bissette-like length, but stay with it. Hopefully you'll find it interesting.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – Despite reports the country might be heading into a recession, representatives of local companies exhibiting at the 105th Annual American International Toy Fair at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center all
had about the same thing to say: attendance was good and buyers were placing orders.

The annual event draws over 1,200 exhibitors who show their products and services to over 21,000 toy industry professionals from 94 countries. The show was presented Feb. 17 -20 by the Toy Industry Association, Inc (TIA).

According to a release from the TIA, domestic retail sales of toys generated $22.1 billion in 2007 compared to $22.6 billion in 2006, a decline of only two percent, despite what release described as “difficult economic conditions that plagued the industry in 2007.”

What also was seen as the TIA as a negative factor was the publicity from the recalls of toys manufactured in China.

According to the TIA report prepared by The NPD Group there was an increase in sales of connected Web play toys, such as Webkinz.

“Connected Web play toys, which marry a physical toy with ongoing digital play opportunities via the Internet, is a relatively new phenomenon that we've seen emerge within the toy industry,” said Anita Frazier, industry analyst, The NPD Group. “Thanks in large part to the popular Webkinz brand, this type of play is expanding into new categories and across many

The local companies exhibiting at the show were Hasbro from East Longmeadow, Janlynn Corporation of Chicopee, Omniglow LLC of Indian Orchard and LEGO Systems, Inc. of Enfield, Conn.

According to the TIA license products accounted for about 27 percent of total toy sales last year. If there was a queen of this year’s Toy Fair it was the Disney television “Hanna Montana.” One could barely walk down the aisles of the Javits Center without encountering Hanna Montana products at every turn.

It was clear that even though some properties might be quite popular as books, comic books, movies or television series, toy manufacturers are still cautious about adding the cost of a license to the production expenses of a toy. The only Harry Potter item this reporter saw was Hasbro’s new Harry Potter version of Clue, set in the Hogwart’s School and using characters from the book.

While the new Batman movie and Speed Racer film was represented in some toys, there was a surprising absence of products from the new Pixar film “Wall E,” while there some interest in the new animated film “Kung Fu Panda.” The new Hulk movie, as well as the up-coming adaptation of the Iron Man comic book, was also the inspiration for several toy lines. If Hanna Montana was the queen of the show, then Indiana Jones was the king. With the release of the new film later this year there were toys lines for the former films as well as the new film.

Another trend at the show was going green. In the pressroom there was more and more information offered on CDs rather than paper, and both the TIA and Hasbro offered its information on reusable zip drives.

“Green” was all over the show. PlanToys, Inc, a firm that makes wooden toys from Thailand, use aging rubberwood trees that otherwise would have been burnt as charcoal. The wood is harvested, kiln-dried and then made into toys
using non-toxic glues and paint.

ImagiPLAY, is a Colorado-based company that is also doing the same as PlanToys – using aged rubberwood trees as the source for wooden toys.

Kapla Toys have a line of wooden construction sets that are made from renewable marine pine trees from the Bourdeaux region of France. The glueless, snapless sets take the place of traditional blocks.

Aurora World, Inc. introduced that was described as the world’s first green plush toy at the show. The fabric used for the furry exterior is made from soybeans while the stuffing is from seedpods of the kapok tree, a
sustainable rainforest tree.

Interestingly there was only one toy manufacturer that this reporter found capitalizing on the recalls of toys made in China with hazardous materials. Channel Craft of Chareroi, Penn. makes a variety of games, games and puzzles
all in the United States and was marketing them as American made.

The world’s largest toy manufacturer, Hasbro, was promoting the anniversaries and new versions of a number of its products. In the busy and colourful showroom near the Javits Center, Hasbro Associate Manager of Public Relations Helen Van Tassel guided this reporter through a maze of Nerf, My Little Pony and G.I. Joes.

The first toy seen in the showroom was the one that made perhaps the largest impression: a computer animated triceratops called Kota big enough for a toddler to sit on him.

Van Tassel noted there are a number of anniversaries being celebrated by the company. The Playskool line is turning 80 this year, Trivia Pursuit and My Little Pony is 25 years old, and Scrabble is now 60 years old.

The Scrabble anniversary edition features a game board with storage for the game pieces as well as curved tile holders to discourage cheating. The entire unit folds up in a convenient carrying case.

Other changes in their established game line include a hush-hush revamping of Clue and a new world edition of Monopoly in which fans are asked to vote the cities that will be included on the fame board. There are details on the voting process at and the on-line voting ends Feb. 28. Voters are allowed to nominate a city of their own and in the luxuriously appointed Monopoly bus that was a rolling polling site, this reporter nominated Springfield, the home of Milton Bradley.

A new game called Pictureka! is designed for play by the whole family. It has a deceptively simple premise of finding illustrations on the game board.

Hasbro has a full new line of Star Wars toys including an incredibly detailed light sabre. With the release of the new Indiana Jones movies Hasbro has a new line of toys from that movie that include a Mr. Potato Head in Jonesian gear and a soft whip children can play with to emulate the adventurer’s own bullwhip.

The new Hulk movies as well as the up-coming Iron man film also inspired new toys from the company. The relatively unseen monster from the hit film “Cloverfield” will be seen in gruesome detail in an action figure
that will be available only at the on-line Hasbro store .

I gasped when I saw this Indiana Jones toy: a soft whip with a handle that makes the whipping noise. This doesn't seem, well, appropriate on several levels.

LEGO is also celebrating anniversaries this year. The LEGO brick is now 50 years old and the LEGO mini-figure is now 30 years old. Publicist Marssie Versola said company was continuing its efforts to return to its construction toy roots.

She added that increasing the play value of the LEGO products was also important. The LEGO Agents sets not only have a vehicle to build, but also there is a hero versus villain storyline outlined in a comic strip
for “instant role play action and fun.”

The LEGO Creator line also carries this them of additional play value as each lit can be used to build three different models, she

LEGO has a limited number of licensed kits this year. It no longer has a Harry Potter license, but has a several Indiana Jones kits for the first time, a Speed Racer line to tie into the live-action adaptation of the popular Japanese cartoon, a SpongeBob Squarepants line and Batman kits that is not based on the new film as its story-line was “too dark,” Versola said.

Versola said the company is continuing with its Star Wars line that was LEGO’s “first and strongest” licensed line. Sales of Star War kits increased last year although there wasn’t a current movie to boost sales.

Licensed items a have proven to be profitable for Chicopee’s Janlynn Corporation, according to the company’s National Sales Manager Catherine Dyjak. The company is well known in the crafting industry for its cross stitch and other adult craft kits and has made a significant mark in the crafts area for children with its lien of Disney-inspired products. Products based the Pixar film “Cars” has proven to be popular, but the kits with images from “Hanna Montana” have sold very well, she said.

One kit has proven to be quite popular is a “Hanna Montana” pillow case kit in which children color a line drawing with special crayons. An adult then can set the colors with an iron. The pillowcases come in party packs designed for parties and sleepovers and Dyjak said the advantage is there is no paint to spill.

“The Disney licenses have worked well for us,” she said.

Overall, the company is seeing an increase in sales of their craft kits for children.

“It’s skyrocketed,” Dyjak said, and noted the children want to participate in crafts the same as their mothers.

Ira Leeman, the president and CEO of Omniglow LLC, the Indian Orchard-based company specializing in chemiluminescent consumer products, said business has been very good.

The company makes a wide variety of novelty items from necklaces and earrings to Halloween items to light sticks to beverage cups.

Except for some Asian companies, Leeman said Omniglow is the sole manufacturer of this kind of item. Leeman’s company also makes glow technology products for the medical field.

The company expanded several years ago by buying a party supply company and Omniparty is also doing well Leeman said thanks to the company’s relationship with Amscan, Inc. a firm that owns party stores across the nation.

Speaking on the possibility of a recession, Leeman said his company hasn’t felt it and the nation’s economic problems are more of a banking issue.

He said his company specializes in products for children and children “don’t feel a recession.”

One license that always interests me is the books and characters of Springfield-born Dr. Seuss. There seemed to be little interest in the up-coming animated “Horton Hears a Who,” but McFarlane Toys will be issuing a set of action figures and scenes based on the Chuck Jones animated version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

One new game company, I Can Do That! From Seattle, Wash. has had much success with a series of games based on Seuss books. Kimberly Pierce, the communications director of the company, explained each game is modeled carefully on a Seuss book. Order Up, Sam is based on “Green Eggs and Ham,” while You to the Rescue is based on “Horton Hears a Who!” The company’s work was been nominated for a Toy of the Year Award.

One of the best aspects of the Toy fair is discovering new products from smaller manufacturers. Big Eye Dummies, a line of goofy-looking, but appealing plush animals, looked as if they had been designed for animation. David Lipson, their creator, said they might wind up one day as animated characters as he is an animator. Among his many credits, the New York-based Lipson was the producer on “The Venture Brothers” and the animation producer on “Saturday Night Live’s TV Funhouse.”

Each of the “dummies” comes with two mouth and eye combinations that attach with magnets to the body of the toy.

A Boston native who grew up going to Newbury Comics, a New England music and pop culture store, Lipson said he always loved toys. When he came up with the concepts, he went out to a local K-Mart and bought a sewing machine. After completing one doll, he showed it around to prospective stores and then had an initial batch of dolls manufactured.

While he isn’t giving up his day job in animation, he said the interest shown by Buyers at the Toy Fair and at a recent gift show was good.

Hands down, though, the oddest thing this reporter saw at the Toy Fair was Tofu the Vegan Zombie. The character, according to the press release, is the star of the film made last year and now being seen in film festivals. The next screening will be at the Florida Film Festival on April 2.

The film features the voice talents of Billy West, who is, according to press materials, is a vegan himself.

Applehead Factory, which is know for their creepy teddy bear line, Teddy Scares, is now producing a seven-inch articulated toy based on the character.

The concept is “Tofu is a friendly zombie, created from a botched experiment in Professor Vost’s laboratory. Lab Money #5, one of Vost’s lab animals, stuffed a block of tofu into the zombie boy’s open skull after accidentally losing the brain. As a result, Tofu only eats vegetables and grains and has no taste for human meat. However if Tofu ever loses his tofu brain, he turns into a dangerous, flash-craving zombie creatures.”

According to the company’s Web site, the animated short, “Zombie Dearest,” has already been seen over 50,000 times.

Check it out yourself at

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Friday, February 22, 2008

It's 6 a.m. and I've got to write two stories before I could to the office and finish another story to be used in the edition that goes to the printer at the end of the day. I've got some sort of cold and frankly wish I could just stay in bed, but at a small newspaper, when one person is sick it can throw everything and everyone off track.

A meeting yesterday of Springfield's Finance Control Board – the state-imposed body that runs the city in many ways – was two and a half hours late. This threw me off in a very big way. i was counting on this story, didn't really have a back-up ( that was probably dumb) so I wasted that time.

These are the things you deal with at a 'paper such as ours. Not looking for sympathy (I know here to find it) but hoping those who might think there's a certain romance or ease with the job will understand that many times the goal is simply be accurate and meet the deadlines.

Here's the column I wrote for this week's paper. After doing serious ones for the past several weeks, I had to do something hopefully a little comical.

Thank goodness as a journalist I'm allowed to be professionally ignorant. I'm able to admit I don't know or understand something, ask some questions and become educated. Here are some of my recent concerns:

Do politicians have a better metabolism than many of us? Do you ever notice that even in severely cold weather, many elected officials never break down and wear an appropriate coat? How about a hat? Gloves? They would rather be fashionable than warm, but perhaps their bodies, through some evolutionary change in response to their office, are warmer.

I heard the new Air Jordans cost $185 a pair and people waited in line at a New York City shoe store up to five days in order to buy a pair. Could someone tell me why these shoes are truly better than lace-up Converse? A $65 pair of New Balance running shoes? How the hell did my generation get along with Keds and P.F. Flyers?

If waterboarding isn't torture, then why doesn't one of its proponents in the Bush administration demonstrate it to show it's no big deal?

If the Massachusetts House leadership doesn't want casino gambling then what are they going to propose as a measure to increase revenues, maintain programs and not raise taxes or fees?

My hair gets messed up by just looking at it in a mirror. How do our local TV anchors always have perfect hair no matter what?

Does anyone really care that Paris Hilton's brother got arrested? Is this what passes as a news story these days? Yes, of course it is!

For that matter, is the "Today" show the most vapid collection of non-stories ever passed off as news?

Why is my dental insurance company debating whether or not to pay a $72 claim for an extraction of a broken tooth? What is the big deal?

Does Mitt Romney really think a Democratic presidency would aid the terrorists? Does he not understand President Bush's actions have brought Islamic terrorism to a nation that didn't have any? Isn't that "aiding" terrorists?

Do you think New York Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg might be thinking twice about an independent and self-financed run for the presidency when he sees how much dough Romney blew to little effect?

Answers to any of the above would be appreciated.


As I write this column Congressman Richard Neal was one of the members of Congress to be invited to the signing of the economic stimulus package. Now as I understand it, the bill would allow the federal government to send out checks of at least $300 to almost everyone who is earning a paycheck. People paying income taxes could get $600 per individuals or $1,200 a couple. There are provisions to help businesses and those people who have a sub-prime mortgage for their home.

Of course, if you're a fiscal conservative you might argue the government can't really afford this gesture as we're running a hulking deficit.

Now I know that when I'm doing the dirt sleep, my grandkids will be still struggling with the debts rung up by this measure and by the Iraqi War. I probably shouldn't accept the money, but I'm a weak, weak man. And hey, the Chinese are loaded and willing to lend us the money!

I've been pondering just how I should be spending my money in order so that it would the maximum effect on the economy. I suppose a pile of DVDs wouldn't be so good. Paying on my credit card bill would help me, but would it assist the economy?

How about a trip to Vegas? A box of cigars? A winter fur coat for Lucky the Wonder Bichon? How about I just stash it in the bank?

Choices, choices... what are you going to do with yours?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Boy am I bushed! Monday was a terrible day...lay-out day plus a three hour manager meeting about the budget. Please shoot me now. Hide the sharp objects. Where's the gas pipe?

Tuesday was spent at the Toy Fair in NYC....5:35 a.m. train, work most of the day ( I did take time to see my friend Richard Gordon and to go to the Virgin Megastore) and get back home at 11:35 p.m. Traveling with my buddy The Other Mark M made the day enjoyable. Then I had to be a Chamber of Commerce breakfast for 7:15 a.m.

There's nothing so invigorating as a chamber breakfast! At least the food was good and there was a bit of a story from the mayor's state of the city address. I had a hard time staying awake though. I wish I liked coffee.

I'll post the first installment of Toy Fair stuff tomorrow when my brain stops hurting. I love covering stuff like trade shows as they are the source for interesting trend information. I just wish I could do it in a civilized manner and stay overnight in the city.

Well, at least I can still go. The daily paper here has apparently given up on the Toy Fair despite four local companies that exhibit there. I love the conceit from The Republican's brass that they can still cover local news just fine after slashing their reportorial resources. What's next? A newspaper put together by interns and a handful of editors?

Ah to happier things, such as talking to up and coming comic Lavell Crawford.

Lavell Crawford said that as a child he wanted to be a superhero specifically, Spiderman.

"There were plenty of spiders in my basement, but none of them were radioactive," he recalled with a laugh.

His career goals changed, though, when he listened to a Richard Pryor album for the first time.

"I thought it was incredible," he said.

Crawford will be appearing at the Comedy Connection at the Hu Ke Lau on Feb. 23. Television audiences will recognize him from apperances on "The Tom Joyner Show," "Steve Harvey's Big Time," "BET's Comic View" and from the most recent season of "Last Comic Standing," where he came in second in the comedy competition.

Crawford has been very busy with his first Comedy Central special debuting on Feb. 22 as well as the release of his CD "Takin' a Fat Break." He also recently appeared on the cable television special, "Martin Lawrence Presents the First Amendment."

When he spoke with Reminder Publications last week he was waiting for the limousine to arrive to bring him to a taping of Chelsea Handler's talk show, "Chelsea Lately."

While in college his interest in comedy was strengthened when he saw Sinbad perform live. At first, Crawford thought his road as a performer was as a rapper, but he noticed that his rhymes were comedic and making people laugh.

Crawford said he was lucky to break into the industry in the early 1990s when comedy was booming. It took him five months of calling a local comedy club before they would give him a slot on a open mic night, but he was persistent.

"It was calling me," he said.

Crawford said that appearing on "Last Comic Standing" was a mixed blessing. He wanted to be in the final five comics because of the exposure it would give him, but the actual competition itself " was really bogus." The comics never learned of the percentages of audience approval.

"Television is a strange animal," he said. He noted that he and the other comics had to re-write their material to make sure it met the network's rules, but that dramatic shows are held to a different standard.

Crawford said the show was a "learning experience" for him and proved worth it as he is booked through December. He added that if the producers had wanted a more authentic reality show, they should have put the comics on the road and sent a camera crew to document them.

"They try to control it on television, but you can't control it on the road," he said. "Make it on the road, that's where all the drama starts."

The comic never censors himself, but his comedy is not laden with curses, the n-word or sexual references.

"I don't go overboard," he said.

Crawford would like to do everything in show business. He has written scripts; he is currently promoting and would like to get more acting roles.

Although Crawford formally writes his act, he said, "The stage is my notebook."

"I've written more jokes on stage than off," he said. He explained that he edits material as he works, subtracting and adding to a gag or routine depending upon the audience.

And Crawford explained how a comic has to be ready to exploit whatever happens before an audience. He explained that the Comedy Connection in Boston doesn't have a step onto the stage. The club was packed and Crawford said he was so excited he missed the stage and "fell on my face."

He didn't let that stop him as once he was on stage, he did 40 minutes on his accident.
© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I’ve been doing research for the Springfield post card book and what has struck me over and over is the very short time period most businesses, institutions, buildings, and trends have for success.

Take Indian Motocycle (not a misspelling) for example. The company started producing motorcycles in 1902 but was done manufacturing their own product by the early 1950s. They were the first American motorcycle and when they had their financial problems in the ‘50s that led to the company’s demise, their only American competition was Harley-Davidson.

Springfield’s Union Station was built in 1926. It replaced a much more elegant building (that’s the postcard you see) which I wish still existed. Bu the mid-1950s, the station was considered a white elephant and the railroad that owned it was seeking a buyer.

The old zoo at Forest Park was deemed in the 1930s as fairly progressive, but by the 1970s it was an embarrassment.

Fifty years, 30 years…those seem like a long time for some folks, but they aren’t really.

I suppose this post is a typical musing from a middle-age guy who understands that at age 53 he has lived most of his life. With my diabetes, I probably have another 20 years if I’m very lucky.

I’m not being morose this morning, just reflecting on the brief opportunities we have for some sort of success – however you measure it. I know this is why I’m trying to get these books out of my head and into reality. That will be one of my measures of success.


Over at Marty Langford’s Screen Writing blog, he reveals the news that director John Landis is working on a bio pic on Bill Gaines, the late publisher of the beloved EC Comics and MAD magazine.

I had the opportunity of interviewing Gaines three times – twice in his office and once on the phone. I used the interview in my fanzine, Inertron, back in my college years and then sold it to the Valley Advocate. I then did a piece for the Westfield Evening news and many years later I recycled it for Steve Murphy’s late and lamented V Mag.

I’ll never forget going into his office and seeing a near life-size Kong Kong head mounted as if he was peering through the window. Or the truly sick two photo framed with photos of Fatty Arbuckle and the woman he was alleged to have raped to death (he didn’t).

I was so encouraged by the first interview, that when I had a second session I brought along apiece I had written for MAD. I told Gaines about it and he called in one of the editors who read it silently with no reaction. It was the longest five minutes of my life. He finally said that it was funny, but in was in the style of an established MAD writer. It was. I thought that would get me a sale. He suggested that I try something in my own style.

I asked Gaines once what he thought of Cracked and Sick, two MAD competitors. (I didn’t admit that as a kid I read Cracked much more than MAD. For some reason my mom didn’t like MAD but thought that Cracked was better. I did become a life-long John Severin fan because of it.)

Gaines told me that there would be a point in my life where I would understand how it is to have someone try to capitalize on your hard work.

He was right.

I’ll try to dig out those stories and post the most complete version as soon as I can.

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I've been writing some media pieces for my weekly column and need to stop it as I'm sure many of my readers don't want a steady diet of media criticism or analysis. So this week I'm going to write about my dental insurer's reaction to paying a $72 share of a tooth extraction. We all love insurance companies. The bastards are debating a $72 bill and I had to pay $178!

In any event, I owe Tom Devine a lunch at Jake's as his recent column was some good food for thought and an inspiration for my column below.

Talkers Magazine, the Bible of the talk radio industry, has a very interesting piece in its new issue on how talk show hosts view bloggers and generally it falls along the line if a blogger is critical of the host's point of view than he or she is to be discounted. It's an interesting attitude since talk radio and blogging have much in common: often-times opinion-based writing that fosters an inactive audience.

Frankly, the two mediums should be embracing one another.

Please indulge me, folks a moment for a little shoptalk. Since you're reading this newspaper, I'm assuming you're interested in local news and the health of the local media.

My friend Tom Devine whom many consider to be the father of the Western Massachusetts blogging movement (he said he is demanding a paternity test) has a very interesting post at

Tom noted the announced demise of the print edition of The Local Buzz, the monthly entertainment and opinion publication published by The Republican's sister company. The paper will be going to a Web edition, which Tom interprets as another nail in the coffin of traditional media.

Tom wrote, "The era of printed publications is over. All newspapers, not just Local Buzz but the New York Times, the Washington Post, all the magazines national and regional, everything, everywhere that is presently distributed by the printed page is going to follow Local Buzz into cyberspace or they are going out of business in less than ten years. There will be no exceptions. There is no third way. All that remains is the deathwatch.

"The old dying media system was extremely elitist. In order to communicate to a mass audience in the pre-internet days you had to have access to expensive technology. You had to have a printing press, or a broadcasting tower, and all the technical know-how, licenses and unionized employees that implied. That meant 99% of the public could not print an article or go on television or on the radio, making those who did have such access, namely the reporters and writers who worked for the people who owned the printing presses and broadcast towers, a power so enormous it was almost invisible."

I understand where Tom is coming from and I embrace much of what he is saying, although I guess I'm part of the elitist system and my thoughts may be tainted. The Web is a powerful communications technology and is clearly the wave of the future. Hey, I blog. This newspaper has a Web site. I'm no Luddite.

Print is not dead, however. As long as the cost of producing magazines, books and newspapers in the traditional hard copy way is profitable they will continue.

And an affordable Web-based portable device that allows for the easy reading of newspapers, books and magazines is also necessary in order for the masses to go electronic is also necessary.

Perhaps I will see that revolution within my lifetime; at best I've another 25 years, more or less.

Before we start burying traditional publishing let's consider some facts:

The Association of American Publishers released its annual estimate of total book sales in the United States for 2007 last May. The report, which uses data from the Bureau of the Census as well as sales data from 81 publishers inclusive of all major book publishing media market holders, estimates that U.S. publishers had net sales of $24.2 billion in 2006 with growth in adult and juvenile books growing 2.9 percent to $8.3 billion, a compound growth rate of 3.7 percent per year since 2002.

An independent study from the Magazine Publisher of America showed the considerable significance magazines play in conveying advertising messages.

In other words, print works.

What is affecting most newspapers is a decline in advertising based on the economic climate of an area and the number of national chain stores, which do not advertise in local media. The other factor is the anticipation of a certain level of profit, which many observers believe the corporations that own big newspapers have set at unreasonably high levels.

The problem with the Web is trying to find a formula in which writers and artists get paid for creating content (one prominent local site depends on recruiting bloggers to work for free) and advertisers get real results so they are willing to pay enough that a site can actually turn a profit.

At this point the issue is far less about the technology and far more the business.

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Oh that Mr. Martin!

Mark "Not the Race Car Driver" may not be the king of NASCAR, but he's one of "in crowd" of cartoonists doing cool work at Nickelodeon Magazine. Mark is featured in a new all comic edition of the 'zine on newsstands now. Go get it!

For a Wednesday I'm in a pretty burnt frame of mind already. I find that after nearly two years of my present schedule I never feel relaxed or refreshed by a weekend and constantly am trying to play catch-up when it comes to fatigue.

Here's what I published as my column this week. I'd love to have folks tell me what is their line for political correctness – what jokes or comments go too far. What offends you these days?

Where is the line between freedom of expression and hate speech? What is the difference between a racist remark and a joke?

I don't know.

Recently making a reference to the idea that President Bill Clinton was the nation's first "black president" a name given to him by acclaimed author Toni Morrison Sen. Barack Obama said, "Bill Clinton did have an enormous affinity with the African-American community, and still does, and I think that's well-earned."

The presidential candidate then added, "I would have to investigate more of Bill's dancing abilities, you know, some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a 'brother.'"

It was a joke, but was it appropriate? Would it have been appropriate if a white candidate had said it?

I don't really know, but I bet if someone other than an African-American said it, there would have been a flurry of criticism. I'm also sure there are some African-Americans who are not comfortable with Obama summoning up an old and potentially damaging stereotype.

The lines are so blurred between what is correct and incorrect speech these days. Context seems to be the determining factor who says what at what time to which audience in what way.

And there's no guidebook on context, is there?

The other night when I was covering the fundraiser for Rep. Angelo Puppolo at the Basketball Hall of Fame there were about 40 protesters out on the sidewalk in what was described by them as a "Values Based Counter Rally." As you might know, Puppolo's switching of his vote on the same sex marriage issue vote back in June earned him the wrath of local anti-gay marriage activists who maintain that he betrayed them and their cause.

Puppolo was then publicly branded a "traitor to marriage" in a billboard last year on Interstate 91 comparing him to Judas and Benedict Arnold, no less that was financed by an out-of-state activist group.

The 40 or so folks carried signs, some of which criticized Puppolo by name but others condemning gay marriage. Still others simply attacked homosexuality.

As I walked up to the sidewalk to speak with Mike Franco, one of the leaders of the protest, one young man made sure I saw his placard. It read "Quarantine Queers."

He looked very proud and smiled.

All I could think of was the image of concentration camps.

My conservative friends yes, I actually have some have pointed out to me there is "hate speech" on both sides of the political discourse. They are right. Many people, left and right, have said and written grossly inappropriate things that have not advanced constructive dialogue.

That doesn't excuse what I saw the other night.

Free speech can be like juggling a cactus a thankless exercise that provides plenty of opportunity for pain. It's not easy to listen to points of view that are violently opposed to your own, but in a society such as ours they must not only be tolerated, but protected as well.

I'm willing to say a line should be drawn when an opinion advocates some form of violence and that sign that offended me did just that. That young man should be ashamed, but then again, I'm sure he is comfortable with his beliefs and thinks he has done nothing wrong.

But he has.

Well, I'll be getting some letters.


OK, I'm officially cheesed at this lop-sided primary system. Here I was all set to vote for Gov. Bill Richardson, a guy with an impressive set of accomplishments in a variety of government positions plus he comes from the land of my birth, New Mexico but he drops out of the race because he couldn't get the early support he needed to sustain his campaign.

Then I was all set to vote for Sen. John Edwards and he well, you know what has happened there.

This presidential race screams for real electoral reform in which we have a system not based on dollars raised, but on real debate that can result in people making decisions that are not based on who's the last candidate standing.

We need a national primary, financed by the parties, which takes the dollar signs out of the race and allows qualified candidates to be part of the discussion.

Of course too many people are making too much money off of the process now everyone from ad agencies and bumper sticker printers to caterers and hotel owners. The primaries pump millions of dollars into the economy, but they don't truly serve the voters, in my opinion.

I'm wearing a lapel pin now for my new favorite candidate: Popeye the Sailor. I like Popeye's tolerance he never hits first, but when he does hit back he doesn't fool around. He's obviously a green his boat is powered by the wind. He supports local agriculture one word: spinach. He believes in non-traditional families: he's a single adoptive father. He supports the underdog. He's not caught up in trends he's been wearing the same style of clothes since the 1920s. He speaks plainly and has a motto that should be embraced by everyone: "I yam what I yam."

Who am I kidding? Someone like that would never win a single primary.
© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Sunday, February 03, 2008

I just added a new post to That's Thirty about my two days last week covering the governor. Ah the life of a's exciting to trail behind elected officials in elementary schools.

A photo from my book: I'm interviewing the late actor Jonathan Harris, a hell of a nice guy

I have a pile of books here and for those who expressed an interest in getting an autographed copy of "Escape! How Animation Broke into the Mainstream in the 1990s" please send me a check or money order for $25 (priority mail postage is about $5) to G. Michael Dobbs, 17 Spruce St. Springfield, MA 01105.

My publisher apparently asks some of the authors to sign index cards he then inserts into their books when they are requested by customers. I've not been extended this service, so I'll do it the old school way – you send me the money and I'll do a personal inscription.

Now in my best Stan Lee voice: I promise it's a must-have, double-bag collectors item that no true believer can be without!

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs