Saturday, July 01, 2006

 

Super-Patriotism vs. Uber-Capitalism?

We discussed the issue a little bit in the update to the Superman Returns review below.

But now it is a full-fledged
controversy to which the movie writers admit helping anticipating:
We were always hesitant to include the term 'American way' because the meaning of that today is somewhat uncertain," Ohio native [co-writer Michael] Dougherty explains. "The ideal hasn't changed. I think when people say 'American way,' they're actually talking about what the 'American way' meant back in the '40s and '50s, which was something more noble and idealistic."

While audiences in Dubuque might bristle at Superman's newfound global agenda, patrons in Dubai likely will find the DC Comics protagonist more palatable. And with the increasing importance of the overseas boxoffice -- as evidenced by summer tentpoles like "The Da Vinci Code" -- foreign sensibilities can no longer be ignored.

"So, you play the movie in a foreign country, and you say, 'What does he stand for? -- truth, justice and the American way.' I think a lot of people's opinions of what the American way means outside of this country are different from what the line actually means (in Superman lore) because they are not the same anymore," [co-writer Dan] Harris says. "And (using that line) would taint the meaning of what he is saying."
So, now Superman stands for "Truth, Justice &...all that stuff."

As mentioned previously, this is quite a dramatic sea-change in American pop-culture in just a few years. The difference between two multi-million dollar productions is stunning: In 2002, Spider-Man stands proudly on the American flagpole; in 2006, a 20th century icon like Superman eschews the "...and the American Way" slogan to which he has been attached since at least the early 1950s.

Dougherty and Harris seem to be suggesting that Brand America doesn't "sell" quite as well overseas as it once did and a global company like Time Warner has to worry about all of its audiences.

However, has TW been too cute by half?

As long-time contributor ERA notes, "The only places finding Brand America a hard sell are those marketing overseas first and American second. This decision will be to Superman Return's domestic gross detriment. Granted, Warner Bros. probably doesn't care -- just so it does well overseas."

I'm not sure about that (if Warner Bros. cares or not). This could turn out to be a major embarrassment given that Warner made a specific marketing choice to release this movie around the Fourth of July. That implicitly suggests a desire to tap into American patriotic sentiment. Yet now, days before America's Independence Day, the movie writers are admitting they intentionally played down "the American Way"?

They may be correct from an international marketing perspective -- but it is absolutely stupid to say that right before America's birthday. If the movie ultimately underperforms over the extended holiday weekend, this could turn out to be a major faux pas.



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Friday, June 30, 2006

 

Open Thread

This little thing is becoming very popular -- 160-something comments last week! Because of the big weekend, it might not be quite as lively. However, consider this place your home-away-from home!

Let the fireworks begin...or continue (depending on when you read this)!!

Those getting ready to travel (or already doing so) -- Happy Fourth! Those staying around, feel free to drop by. There may be a couple of "very special posts" running this weekend!

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Thursday, June 29, 2006

 

Electric Dreams

As we mentioned a couple weeks ago, the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? opens this week (in New York and Los Angeles). It's a well-done production, though obviously one's political perspective may determine how convinced one eventually is.

Anyway, in the interests of fairness, here is Ralph Kinney Bennett with what can be considered an
op-ed "rebuttal" to the premises of the film.

Watch. Read. Decide.


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Gitmo Better Blues

The Supreme Court's push back on the Bush administration with respect to military tribunals at Guantanamo is and will be a media firestorm today.

As
SCOTUSBLOG says, the decision on how Al Qaeda captives must be treated is the big story:

More importantly, the Court held that Common Article 3 of Geneva aplies as a matter of treaty obligation to the conflict against Al Qaeda. That is the HUGE part of today's ruling. The commissions are the least of it. This basically resolves the debate about interrogation techniques, because Common Article 3 provides that detained persons "shall in all circumstances be treated humanely," and that "[t]o this end," certain specified acts "are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever"—including "cruel treatment and torture," and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." This standard, not limited to the restrictions of the due process clause, is much more restrictive than even the McCain Amendment. See my further discussion here.
Various views on this decision can be found here, here, and here.

Busy day at work, so I won't have time to give a protracted analysis of this complicated, multi-level 5-3 (Roberts recusing) decision.

I will say though that a decision which attempts to force a more collaborative approach -- between the President and the Congress and following the rule of law -- in prosecuting detained terrorist is not necessarily a completely bad thing.

A wartime president should have a wartime Congress as a partner in honorably prosecuting a long-term military engagement that comports with American principles.


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Look! Up In The Sky! It's A...What?

WARNING: THIS IS SOMETHING OF AN IN-DEPTH REVIEW/ANALYSIS OF SUPERMAN RETURNS. IT MAY CONTAIN DESCRIPTIONS OF PLOT AND CHARACTER THAT SOME MIGHT CONSIDER SPOILERS. PROCEED ACCORDINGLY.

Superman Returns is a great, um, what exactly?

Sure, it's going to be the mega-movie of this weekend -- and perhaps the whole year.

Guys will flock to it for the action and the very good special effects. Women will also enjoy it because of the rather odd love triangle at the center of the flick. Surprise though! It's not the Superman-Lois Lane-Clark Kent one that has been the heart of the Superman mythos from the beginning.

On the surface, director Bryan Singer (late of the first two X-Men movies), has created a grand, majestic spectacle. As has been noted often, the film is more an extension of the two Richard Donner-initiated Superman films from a quarter-century ago than just an homage -- the opening credits, the construction of the Fortress of Solitude, the use of the Marlon Brando/Jor-El footage, Kevin Spacey channeling Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor. (Parker Posey, remarkably, almost steal each scene in which she appears as Luthor's assistant Kitty. She also ends up weirdly resembling a young Jamie Lee Curtis.)

However, Singer is also a very modern director and he pulls out all the stops with great CGI-assisted Super feats. Brandon Routh looks like he is Christopher Reeve's clone (the film is dedicated to the memory of Christopher & Dana Reeve). On the other hand, in the footage set back on the Kent farm, Routh is dressed and looks vaguely like Tom Welling who plays the not-quite-yet Superman in television's Smallville.


Singer also demonstrates that he knows what era it is: Luthor's stark Kryptonite island is reminiscent of the smoky jagged remains at Ground Zero in the days immediately after 9/11. When the Daily Planet's signature globe begins to sway, threatening to fall to earth, it is difficult not to think of other huge metropolitan structures that typified a city's skyline -- but are no more.

The plot isn't great: Luthor's desire for his Kryptonian continent is rather confusing. But, hey, Luthor is a lot smarter than the rest of us. Besides, plot is secondary to the general iconic/mythic Odysseus-like story of long-gone adventurer coming home.

However, there is one annoying logical flaw in the movie -- beyond the usual "Wow! How could that really happen?!?" suspension-of-disbelief type of comic-book action where hardly anyone gets killed when the hero is making one of his last minute saves.

No, this particular flaw bothered me from the moment I went into the theater. I won't say what it is now; I'd rather wait until at least the weekend is over, so more people can watch it without me throwing out an unfair spoiler.

That said, the larger problem that prevents this movie from being quite on the par with recent superhero flicks -- Batman Begins, Spider-Man and X-Men -- is that Superman/Clark Kent is not the emotional heart of the film.

Yes, there are tender scenes between Superman and Lois (a brunette Kate Bosworth who ends up looking like Katie Holmes and acting only slightly better), and Superman with various "family" members such as Ma Kent (with a neat photo of Glen Ford -- who played Pa Kent in the Donner Superman -- on the Kent living room mantle).


Yet, the "real" emotional anchor and arguably a true hero is the character Richard White. He is played by actor James Marsden who, fresh off playing nice guy Scott (Cyclops) Summers in the X-Men franchise, is used to being in a love triangle (vying with bad boy Wolverine for the attention of Jean Grey).

Richard is Lois' significant other, nephew of Planet editor Perry ("Great Caesar's Ghost"), ajournalist himself, a pilot -- and the man James, Lois' young son calls "Daddy." He loves Lois, but she is the one who refuses to make their relationship "legal." Yep, Lois is living in sin -- something of a significant leap forward from the rather chaste traditional depiction of the character (though she and Superman did hook up in Superman II, after he gave up his powers).

In any event, Richard White knows that he is forever in Superman's shadow, but that never stops him.

In the most interesting sequence, Richard shows up unexpectedly to save Lois and Jason, as the ship they're on breaks apart around them ("How did you get here?" asks Lois. "I flew," Richard the pilot responds matter-of-factly.)

Then Superman arrives to save all three.

Yet, 20 minutes later, the roles are switched: Lois convinces Richard to turn their plane around as it approaches Metropolis -- in order to save Superman from Luthor's Kryptonite trap. Lois dives in to fish the hero out of the soup (note to ladies at home: Swimming in a long, formal gown is generally ill-advised).

By the film's end, Richard can almost be considered the true hero: He is the one who sacrifices his future happiness -- exactly the opposite of the aforementioned Superman II where the hero realizes he has to give up the likely happiness of a normal life and married love in order to fulfill his mission to the world.

So, one must ask: If, in a comic book movie, it is the ordinary guy -- with no powers -- who risks his life for his family, knowing that he is likely to lose the woman he loves...who is the true super-hero?

And is Lois Lane's alleged Pulitzer Prize winning op-ed, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman", the ultimate ironic twist in the movie?

Thus, we are left asking -- Superman Returns is a very good what? On one level, it is not as good as the comic book movies mentioned above -- or even the slightly more obscure Hellboy. But, it is a well-textured film -- much more complex than one thinks at first glance (incredibly annoying logical flaw aside, which could have been resolved with one or two lines of dialogue).

It is in that sense, I lean to giving the film a solid B+.

However, after more folks have gone to see the film, I will write more. There is a rather fascinating subtext which makes Richard White an even more intriguing character --and the entire project one of the boldest moves that director Bryan Singer has ever done.


UPDATE: Oh, almost forgot. Here's one major reason to go see Superman Returns -- and to get there early! Not surprisingly, after this preview ran, the audience broke out in spontaneous applause (for a movie that won't be in theatres until May 2007). Somewhat surprisingly though, the same thing happened after the next preview ran, for this movie coming out in December of this year. Kinda cool to know that there is as much enthusiasm for Spidey and Mary Jane as there is for Mary, Joseph and J.C.

UPDATE II: My Post colleague Tom Elliott links to a Page Six item (geez, how synergistically circular can we get!) pointing out a certain phrase that is missing from the new flick: When a character says "Does he still stand for Truth, Justice...", instead of saying "...and the American Way," he says "and all that stuff".

Is "the American Way" no longer relevant (or profitable) for a movie that will have international distribution? I must admit that when that scene occurred, I did notice it.

Similarly, as much as Singer's film borrows from Richard Donner's Superman The Movie, it does not copy it's closing scene with Superman flying into the sky carrying the American flag. Indeed, that memorable scene was most recently aped in a different super-hero feature, Spider-Man, which closed with the hero standing on a flagpole and Old Glory flapping in the wind. For more on that film's post-9/11 patriotism, check here.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

 

Day-um! 3-6 Mafia Was Right!!!

It is hard out here for a pimp!!

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wants to tax pimps and prostitutes.

This issue raises some important questions of national policy significance.

-- Does this mean that lobbyists and members of Congress will now be subject to double-taxation?

-- Will Americans for Tax Reform consider this a violation of
the no-tax pledge it demands candidates sign when they run for office?

-- Is this a sly way for Grassley to distance himself from the
CIA/Duke Cunningham/hookers scandal?

-- Following the pattern of conservatives who turned public opinion against the estate tax by calling it the "death tax," will pimps and prostitutes form their own organization, -- say, SCREWPAC? -- to block the imposition of a "love tax"?

Pimps up, IRS down!


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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

 

NY's Most Hated Agency

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The MTA has managed to screw up current subway stops...crush retail and hotel business downtown...begin constructing a transit "hub" that isn't even needed...
all on the federal dime -- until the inevitable cost overruns cost New York taxpayers more.

Steve Cuozzo has the full, truly sad, details of what an out-of-control government agency has done to contribute to the ongoing misery of Downtown Manhattan.


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We Didn't Start The Fire

My Post colleague Adam Buckman writes about the controversy swirling around the New York firefighter show Rescue Me

Last week's episode featured a rough sex scene between lead protagonist Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) and his ex-wife Janet: Was the sex between the two de facto rape -- and does the show send a sense of essentially condoning what happened?

Janet barely resists and acts rather normal a few minutes later -- both with Tommy and with his NYPD brother Johnny (with whom she has recently started an affair).

While the scene was quite disturbing, it should be put in the context of a show in which -- as Adam points out -- "people - both male and female - behave reprehensibly." Tommy has
been an alcoholic for most of the show's three seasons. Last year, he had an affair with his cousin Jimmy's widow (Jimmy died on 9/11) -- which is supposed to be a no-no in the FDNY brotherhood. This season, he finds out that his nephew Damian (Jimmy's son) is sleeping with his high school teacher. Tommy puts an end to it -- and ends up having sex with the teacher himself.

Janet, meanwhile, kidnapped their three kids while the divorce proceedings were going on. After she came back and they reconciled, their young son was killed by a hit-and-run driver; Janet blamed Tommy for not paying attention to the son riding his bike. She then got back at him by sleeping with the aforementioned brother. Tommy threw his brother through a

Yes, as the synopsis above suggests, Rescue Me has major soap-operatic elements, but it is the
most intense "real" dramatic show on television (24 is intense, but in an over-the-top comic-bookish way). Furthermore, unlike The Sopranos which gets kudos from critics and fans because of its plotting and emotional intensity, the men at the heart of Rescue Me -- despite their heavy flaws -- are clearly heroes (as opposed to the chic mobster don and his families).

Leary --
who runs a foundation (featured on the Apprentince this season) dedicated to purchasing various firefighting equipment for stations in New York, Boston and elsewhere -- clearly loves the "bravest." However, he refuses to portray them as perfect icons. They are people with broad ranges of emotions who suffer their little triumphs and great tragedies (last season's Alzheimer's arc was heart-rending) and still manage to go about their jobs.

One thing it is not is politically correct. While the show may slam city government for contract
issues and the feds over 9/11-related health issues at Ground Zero, it generally stays away from most "hard" political issues. However, everything else is fair game -- so firefighters can be sexist, racist, homophobic (even the young "probie" who has a rather interesting "arrangement" with his male roommate) and display other not-so-nice human attitudes (and also very funny, personable and engaging as well).


It's in this broad context that the sex scene between Tommy and Janet played out.

As Adam said, it's the best show on TV (on FX tonight at 10 and repeated several times thereafter during the week).


UPDATE: Yes, Rescue Me airs on FX, which is a division of Newscorp which publishes the New York Post, the company for which I work. Consider that a disclaimer (which isn't really necessary given that this is an independent blog with views that should not be considered reflective of those of the Post, Newscorp, Fox or any other corporate holding of Mr. Rupert Murdoch's. So there.

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Flame On

The latest constitutional debate began in the Senate yesterday. This particular amendment blustering pops up every couple of years because of the 1989 case, Texas v. Johnson. The Supreme Court determined in a 5-4 decision that the burning of the American flag is an example of constitutionally-protected speech.

The majority decision was written by William Brennan and signed onto by Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. William Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens, Byron White and Sandra Day O'Connor dissented.

The majority decision:


There is, moreover, no indication - either in the text of the Constitution or in our cases interpreting it - that a separate juridical category exists for the American flag alone. Indeed, we would not be surprised to learn that the persons [491 U.S. 397, 418] who framed our Constitution and wrote the Amendment that we now construe were not known for their reverence for the Union Jack. The First Amendment does not guarantee that other concepts virtually sacred to our Nation as a whole - such as the principle that discrimination on the basis of race is odious and destructive - will go unquestioned in the marketplace of ideas. See Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969). We decline, therefore, to create for the flag an exception to the joust of principles protected by the First Amendment.

It is not the State's ends, but its means, to which we object. It cannot be gainsaid that there is a special place reserved for the flag in this Nation, and thus we do not doubt that the government has a legitimate interest in making efforts to "preserv[e] the national flag as an unalloyed symbol of our country." Spence, 418 U.S., at 412 . We reject the suggestion, urged at oral argument by counsel for Johnson, that the government lacks "any state interest whatsoever" in regulating the manner in which the flag may be displayed. Tr. of Oral Arg. 38. Congress has, for example, enacted precatory regulations describing the proper treatment of the flag, see 36 U.S.C. 173-177, and we cast no doubt on the legitimacy of its interest in making such recommendations. To say that the government has an interest in encouraging proper treatment of the flag, however, is not to say that it may criminally punish a person for burning a flag as a means of political protest. "National unity as an end which officials may foster by persuasion and example is not in question. The problem is whether under our Constitution compulsion as here employed is a permissible means for its achievement." Barnette, 319 U.S., at 640 .

We are fortified in today's conclusion by our conviction that forbidding criminal punishment for conduct such as Johnson's will not endanger the special role played by our flag or the feelings it inspires. To paraphrase Justice Holmes, we submit that nobody can suppose that this one gesture of an unknown [491 U.S. 397, 419] man will change our Nation's attitude towards its flag. See Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 628 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting). Indeed, Texas' argument that the burning of an American flag "`is an act having a high likelihood to cause a breach of the peace,'" Brief for Petitioner 31, quoting Sutherland v. DeWulf, 323 F. Supp. 740, 745 (SD Ill. 1971) (citation omitted), and its statute's implicit assumption that physical mistreatment of the flag will lead to "serious offense," tend to confirm that the flag's special role is not in danger; if it were, no one would riot or take offense because a flag had been burned.

We are tempted to say, in fact, that the flag's deservedly cherished place in our community will be strengthened, not weakened, by our holding today. Our decision is a reaffirmation of the principles of freedom and inclusiveness that the flag best reflects, and of the conviction that our toleration of criticism such as Johnson's is a sign and source of our strength. Indeed, one of the proudest images of our flag, the one immortalized in our own national anthem, is of the bombardment it survived at Fort McHenry. It is the Nation's resilience, not its rigidity, that Texas sees reflected in the flag - and it is that resilience that we reassert today.

The way to preserve the flag's special role is not to punish those who feel differently about these matters. It is to persuade them that they are wrong. "To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence." Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 377 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring). And, precisely because it is our flag that is involved, one's response to the flag [491 U.S. 397, 420] burner may exploit the uniquely persuasive power of the flag itself. We can imagine no more appropriate response to burning a flag than waving one's own, no better way to counter a flag burner's message than by saluting the flag that burns, no surer means of preserving the dignity even of the flag that burned than by - as one witness here did - according its remains a respectful burial. We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.
Anthony Kennedy added in a brief concurring opinion.


The case before us illustrates better than most that the judicial power is often difficult in its exercise. We cannot here ask another Branch to share responsibility, as when the argument is made that a statute is flawed or incomplete. For we are presented with a clear and simple statute to be judged against a pure command of the Constitution. The outcome can be laid at no door but ours.

The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like. We make them because they are right, right [491 U.S. 397, 421] in the sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result. And so great is our commitment to the process that, except in the rare case, we do not pause to express distaste for the result, perhaps for fear of undermining a valued principle that dictates the decision. This is one of those rare cases.

Our colleagues in dissent advance powerful arguments why respondent may be convicted for his expression, reminding us that among those who will be dismayed by our holding will be some who have had the singular honor of carrying the flag in battle. And I agree that the flag holds a lonely place of honor in an age when absolutes are distrusted and simple truths are burdened by unneeded apologetics.

With all respect to those views, I do not believe the Constitution gives us the right to rule as the dissenting Members of the Court urge, however painful this judgment is to announce. Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.

For all the record shows, this respondent was not a philosopher and perhaps did not even possess the ability to comprehend how repellent his statements must be to the Republic itself. But whether or not he could appreciate the enormity of the offense he gave, the fact remains that his acts were speech, in both the technical and the fundamental meaning of the Constitution. So I agree with the Court that he must go free.
Scalia did not write a separate opinion, but has explained his view in various later speaking forums:


Scalia, a Reagan appointee who has served on the nation's highest court since 1986, has angered both liberals and conservatives at times with his opinions. In 1989, he cast the deciding fifth vote in Texas v. Johnson, the decision that struck down laws against burning the American flag. At the time, conservatives were incensed. Thursday afternoon, Scalia told the UM crowd in that case and others, he was handcuffed by the Constitution.

"I would have been delighted to throw Mr. [Gregory Lee] Johnson in jail," Scalia said of the man tied to the flag case. "Unfortunately, as I understand the First Amendment, I couldn't do it." While Scalia's literal interpretation protects those rights expressly written by the framers in 1791, he said he doesn't recognize rights that many people today take for granted as constitutional.
Thank you, Justice Scalia. If only enough senators understand that amending the First Amendment isn't such a great ide, partly for reasons which I alluded to a few years back. Little has changed since then.

UPDATE: Sorry, NR friends: You're wrong...

...but
damn close! Too damn close!

UPDATE II: NRO's editorial in defense of the amendment is really disappointing. The editors say:
The Supreme Court got it wrong in 1989 and 1990, when it struck down first a state law and then a federal law banning flag-burning. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, not freedom of “expression”; and burning a flag is no more speech than nude dancing, public urination, or a barroom brawl — although each of these things may express people’s thoughts and feelings.

(Emphasis added).

OK, got that? One more time: "The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, not freedom of 'expression'...burning a flag is no more speech than nude dancing, public urination or a barroom brawl --although each of these things may express people's thoughts and feelings."

Yet, in April, NR editors took House Republicans to task for taking a dive on campaign finance reform and regulating the 527 political organizations:
Regardless of these tactical calculations, there’s a strong free-speech argument against restricting 527s. Indeed, the GOP itself used to make that argument: McCain-Feingold’s most onerous constraint — the prohibition on broadcast ads that mention a candidate within 60 days of an election — provoked cries of bloody murder from congressional Republicans convinced it violated the First Amendment. How can the same party now justify dragging a whole new class of organizations under that rule? We may not like it that liberal billionaires spend their money on causes we disagree with, but it is their right to do so — and if they’re going to, directness and transparency are preferable to a labyrinth of non-profit groups and tax loopholes.

Here, NR's editors uphold the long-held conservative belief that -- per the Buckley vs. Valeo Supreme Court decision -- money (in the context of political donations and expenditures) is speech, and thus, deserving of First Amendment protection.

So given NR's view on flag-burning, what should be the response to a future Supreme Court that might say "a political contribution is no more speech than nude dancing, public urination or a barroom brawl -- although each of these things may express people's thoughts and feelings"?

And that, folks, is why they call it a "slippery slope."

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Monday, June 26, 2006

 

Guess He's Really Back...


The daily comic strips are making him the punchline once again!


by Stephan Pastis
June 26, 2006
Today's Comic


Thanks to Friend of Ragged Thots, EdMcGonigal, for leaving the link in the Comments!!


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