Fictoid: Stop Me If You’ve Read This Before

by Buzz on 29/07/2015

fictoid stop me if youve read this before

almost every sci-fi / fantasy / superhero epic out there

he pushed the big blue button
that made

the red things
fight
the green things

they fought and fought and fought to prove
some obscure point

their sufferings?
great

their crimes?
heinous

their philosophies?
brutal

their hearts / minds?
filled with hate

their blood sang of fire and ice

and in the end

the heroes won

and virtue triumphed

it always does
it always will
only survivors
get to tell their stories

art by Gray Morrow
text © Buzz Dixon

 

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Thinkage

by Buzz on 25/07/2015

“In recent years and elections one would have thought that homosexuality and abortion were the new litmus tests of authentic Christianity. Where did this come from? They never were the criteria of proper membership for the first 2000 years, but reflect very recent culture wars instead. And largely from people who think of themselves as ‘traditionalists’! (The fundamentals were already resolved in the early Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed. Note that none of the core beliefs are about morality at all. The Creeds are more mystical, cosmological, and about aligning our lives inside of a huge sacred story.) When you lose the great mystical level of religion, you always become moralistic about this or that as a cheap substitute. It gives you a false sense of being on higher spiritual ground than others.

“Jesus is clearly much more concerned about issues of pride, injustice, hypocrisy, blindness, and what I have often called ‘The Three Ps’ of power, prestige, and possessions, which are probably 95 percent of Jesus’ written teaching. We conveniently ignore this 95 percent to concentrate on a morality that usually has to do with human embodiment. That’s where people get righteous, judgmental, and upset, for some reason. The body seems to be where we carry our sense of shame and inferiority, and early-stage religion has never gotten much beyond these ‘pelvic’ issues. As Jesus put it, ‘You ignore the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, and good faith . . . and instead you strain out gnats and swallow camels’. We worry about what people are doing in bed much more than making sure everybody has a bed to begin with. There certainly is a need for a life-giving sexual morality, and true pro-life morality, but one could sincerely question whether Christian nations and people have found it yet.” — Fr. Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations (Sunday, June 16, 2013):  “New Fundamentals” Are a Contradiction in Terms

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I Luvz Me Some T.H.E. CAT

by Buzz on 22/07/2015

THE Cat title color

This is the greatest TV series you’ve never seen.

A one season wonder, a critical hit that never made an appreciable dent in the ratings, and as such was soon lost and forgotten.

“Out of the night comes a man who saves lives at the risk of his own. Once a circus performer – an aerialist who refused the net. Once a cat burglar – a master among jewel thieves. Now a professional bodyguard: Primitive – savage – in love with danger – T.H.E. Cat!”

THE Cat Robert Loggia

At age 12 ½, T.H.E. Cat was exactly what the doctor ordered for young Buzz Dixon. While I’d absorbed a certain amount of knowledge on cool jazz and the beat generation through sheer osmosis, T.H.E. Cat was my first prolonged exposure to those intertwining currents of American pop culture.

My immediate response was
(a) how long has this been going on? and
(b) where can I find more?

Half-hour standalone dramas are extremely rare to come by on TV nowadays (home grown DIY YouTube webseries not withstanding) but back in the day they were common and popular.

Their advantage over hour long episodes was that they tended to be streamlined bits of efficiency, little wasted time and effort, characterization boiled down to sharp, vivid dialog, and scripts that crammed a lot into that thirty minute slot.

Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat (Robert Loggia) was different from most of the other TV show heroes of the era. They were creatures of light, even when their occupations as policemen and private eyes took them into darker corners of human nature.

T.H.E. Cat was a creature of the night; indeed, with only one memorable exception, I can’t recall an episode that didn’t take place almost entirely at night and almost entirely in the narrow streets / tiny alleys / dizzying architecture of The City.[1]

He was not a “good” man,
not in the moral sense,

but he was ethical and dependable,
 always faithful to his own code.

That code did not automatically include always informing the authorities of what he knew or had witnessed, or to adhering to the strict letter of the law depending on the circumstances (my first introduction to the concept of situational ethics).

One episode had him waiting patiently across the street with a sniper’s rifle, waiting for the one moment when somebody would open a window and he’d get one clean shot at the hostage taking killer.

Combat! and a few other military oriented shows might do a story about a sniper, but I can’t recall one pre-S.W.A.T. show where the police ever laid in ambush, much less deliberately killed their target instead of at least offering the chance to surrender first.

TV censors of the day wouldn’t permit it and only T.H.E. Cat’s spotty personal background enable him to be the only non-military character who could do it.

And that may explain why the show, despite being a critical success and a long time cult favorite, never picked up much of an audience when it was on.

Running at 9:30 on Friday nights, the audience that would be most likely to be entertained by it (i.e., older teens and young adults) were more likely out of the house and socializing with friends than at home watching TV.

At 12 ½ I was at the perfect age to appreciate the show while still being too young to go out alone on evenings.[2]

The ambiguous morality of T.H.E. Cat resonated with my own coming of age questioning and introspection, and the questionable (albeit always heroic) ethics of the hero (or rather, the anti-hero) fit in easily with a lot of wondering I was doing about the world around me.

It proved to be a rather sharp and decisive break from the glorious Technicolor yet still morally black and white cop and PI shows found elsewhere.

The jazz ambiance was infectious, and seeing the musicians in their after dark shades and sharp suits — playing music that evoked emotions and feelings impossible to articulate otherwise — pretty much nailed the coffin shut in ever enjoying Lawrence Welk or Dean Martin without irony again.

I didn’t know what it was that the jazz musicians were doing,
but I did know whatever it was I wanted to be part of it,
and whatever it was that Welk and Martin were doing,
that wasn’t it.

T.H.E. Cat was created by Harry Julian Fink (who went on to create another epically morally ambiguous character: Dirty Harry) and produced by the grossly under appreciated Boris Sagal; Fink also wrote and Sagal directed several episodes.

Sagal provides a link to an earlier show that served as a template to this and to John Cassavettes’ Johnny Staccato series: Blake Edwards’ Peter Gunn (Sagal directed several episodes).

It helps to understand the relationship of the three shows,
comparing and contrasting their specific points.

THE Cat title

T.H.E. Cat opening

THE Cat peter_gunn_slate

Peter Gunn opening

THE Cat Staccato 3

Johnny Staccato opening

All three were about lone wolf (or in Loggia’s case, lone cat) operatives who had an uneasy alliance with the authorities and a base of operations in an after hours jazz club (“Mother’s” in Peter Gunn’s case, “Waldo’s” in Johnny Staccato, and “Casa Del Gato” in T.H.E. Cat[3]).

Past that, they were pretty different. Peter Gunn was essentially an old school private eye, just with snazzier threads and better music. His episodes, particularly in the second and third seasons which were filmed at MGM and had full access to their prop / set / wardrobe / stock footage departments, look lush and opulent compared to the other two.

Despite this, even as a kid I always found Peter Gunn bland and talky, with the action beats delivered pretty perfunctorily and not as a truly organic part of the story (Johnny Staccato and T.H.E. Cat, on the other hand, could have violence suddenly flare up yet still seem logical and motivated).

Johnny Staccato seemed poverty row in comparison, and that worked to its advantage. Though filmed in Hollywood, Johnny Staccato took place in NYC, and the production company sent Cassavetes there to film various connecting shots of him going into / out of various buildings / cabs / subway stations / etc. As a result this gave Cassavetes’ more of a lonely, isolated feel than either Peter Gunn or T.H.E. Cat.

And as the character name implies, Johnny Staccato has a jagged, driving edge to him. Though described as a jazz musician who supplemented his income by serving as a sleuth or a bodyguard or a bag man, seen in modern light Staccato is clearly a drug user if not a full fledged junkie. His nervous, anxious energy simply cannot be contained, and I’m sure more than a few viewers of the era wondered what was wrong with him.

In the end, it’s probably just as well that Cassavetes enjoyed only a single season on TV and didn’t become a TV star; it would have probably ruined his unique talent as an actor and film maker in later years.

Still, the lineage is quite clear, and while Peter Gunn only imperfectly broke away from the old PI mode and Johnny Staccato was just too twitchy for its own good, T.H.E. Cat found that perfect sweet spot and became the epitome of cool.

The episodes still bear up to this day, though unlike Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato, you can only find them on YouTube.[4]

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[1]  The exception was an episode that involved a car vs helicopter chase across the desert.

[2]  The lead ins were Tarzan and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. at 7:30 and 8:30, followed by Laredo, a well made but by-the-numbers standard grade Western. There was a large audience segment that could enjoy those three shows but would find T.H.E. Cat to be a big bitter pill hidden in their bag of popcorn.

[3]  Yes, Fink and Sagal had their hero operating out of a cat house. Apparently nobody at NBC Standards & Practices spoke Spanish.

[4]  The image quality is only so-so, with blurry soundtrack and multi-generation VHS tape video, far too often in black and white instead of the original color, but ya know what?  It actually works and enhances the raw, desperate feel of the original. 

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Fictoid: conundrum

by Buzz on 21/07/2015

conundrum cap

You beg for mercy and say you were only following orders.

…interesting…

Tell me, which would you find more horrifying:

Me just following orders?

or

Me doing this on my own?

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The Words Of The Prophets…

by Buzz on 19/07/2015

…are written on the subway walls
and tenement halls

WotP Eleanor Roosevelt

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Compare & Contrast #1

by Buzz on 15/07/2015

IAMx4W vs TGR1

Back in 1963 Stanley Kramer unleashed It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (hence IAMx4W ‘cuz I’m not typing that out every single time) on an unsuspecting movie going public and we haven’t been the same since.

A knockout success at the box office, IAMx4W inspired four direct imitations and a host of smaller “race for the prize” movies, not to mention cartoons such as Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races.

Europe turned out Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, its indirect semi-sequel Those Daring Young Men In Their Jaunty Jalopies a.k.a Monte Carlo Or Bust, and Those Fantastic Flying Fools a.k.a. Jules Verne’s Rocket To The Moon a.k.a. Blast-Off!

The US offered The Great Race.

All five films are large scale vehicular mayhem comedies with lavishly depicted chases and crashes, employing large overlapping casts.

While all have their merits, I’m focusing on the top two of this epic road race movie sub-genre: IAMx4W and The Great Race.

Mi amigo Mark Evanier will disagree with me, but I prefer The Great Race over IAMx4W for a variety of reasons.

IAMx4W is hilarious but it is a one note comedy. Greed corrupts all who encounter it so thoroughly that there is no point in trying to differentiate the characters by any but the most stereotypical tropes. The chase is the thing, and all the carnage (pun intended) it creates.

But while the title race is its centerpiece, The Great Race is actually about something else entirely. The prize is one of honor in completing a ridiculously impossible feat, and the movie quickly eliminates all competition except for the impossibly virtuous Great Leslie (played with sly self parody by Tony Curtis) and the equally impossibly diabolic Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon chewing the scenery with manic handlebar-twirling intensity).

The grit in the gears of this story is Maggie Dubois (the impossibly effervescent Natalie Wood), whose goal is less about the race itself than in proving herself the equal of any man.

Oh, yes, it’s a feminist comedy, written and directed by Blake Edwards back before most of the key texts of the feminist movement were written. Edwards drew less inspiration from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and more from Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex And The Single Girl.[1]

The Great Race is broad farce, arguably the broadest of the five race comedies, but farce does not mean simplistic nor stupid.

As has been noted else where[2] IAMx4W is a perfect distillation of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. “There is none righteous, no, not one” could be the log line for this movie. There are no redeeming characters whatsoever: Those who are not consumed with greed are otherwise weak of character and intellect and suitable only for victimization, and even Mike Mazurki’s mission of mercy miner[3] is more than willing to threaten violence to get what he wants.[4]

Even the police are all corrupt in their own little (or not so little) ways, and the police force as a whole supports the larger corruption of the city fathers above them.

It is a very cynical world view and its morality is strictly black and white. Any of the principle characters could bring the story to a screeching halt with a single phone call to the authorities, but that would take an act of selfless moral integrity that none of them are willing to make.

The Great Race does not project so bleak a world. Despite the cartoonish dichotomy between the Great Leslie and Professor Fate, they do not inhabit a world of moral absolutes.

Leslie is generous and forgiving, and while he is skeptical of Maggie Dubois at first, he is nonetheless capable of changing his mind and first accepting her as an equal and then falling in love with her.[5]

And the world they encounter on the road from New York to Paris is morally much richer and more complex than the one in IAMx4W.

All of the subplots in The Great Race reflect some sort of moral choice or ambiguity. Vivian Vance organizes a sit-in strike at her husband’s own office, but at the same time she and her fellow protestors are blocking his door she’s also reminding him of a dinner obligation. Ross Martin and George MacReady may be scheming warmongers, but they sure have the number of drunken Prince Frederick Hoepnick’s (Jack Lemmon again in a double role) and realize he’s woefully incapable of running his kingdom. The Great Leslie is stalled in a Texas town by cowboys determined to show him a good time, and when conditions force cooperation, even Professor Fate and his minion Max (Peter Falk) are capable of at least temporarily burying the hatchet and helping their rivals, a far cry from the naked selfish greed of IAMx4W.

Another key difference is how they use their huge casts. [6] IAMx4W frequently wastes great talent in a trivial manner: I’m sure Edward Everett Horton and his agent didn’t object to prominent billing and a pay check for a role that could literally have been played just as easily by anybody picked at random from Central Casting. Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, and the Three Stooges all get fleeting but funny cameos that depend on audience knowledge of their onscreen personas, while Carl Reiner and Jesse White get barely anything to do and Stan Freberg’s role consists solely of just sitting in the background and listening to Andy Devine talk.

But in The Great Race, oh my! What wonderful scenes and bits of business and dialog do they get! The Great Race was cast to fill roles, not add star power to the marque, and as a result the supporting cast shines as unique and funny characters.

I know it sounds funny to describe a screwball comedy this way, but The Great Race is actually quite a subtle and complex film, passing judgment on no one and holding out hope for the decency of human beings.

This is not to say IAMx4W isn’t an excellent film; it most certainly is and it delivers the gags steadily and with great skill and gusto. Nothing like it on that scale had ever been seen before[7] and it deserves major props for being first out of the gate and setting the bar so high.

But The Great Race is even better.

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[1] Which the year before The Great Race was gutted and desexualized as a movie, ironically starring Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis as well as featuring Larry Storch (Texas Jack in The Great Race) in a supporting role.

[2] By me, if nobody else.

[3] Boy, that was fun to write!

[4] Delivery of much needed medicine for his sick wife. And he’s threatening Phil Silvers, so it’s kind of a disappointment he doesn’t clobber him. Silver’s character lacks even the flimsiest shreds of characterization afforded the other actors and is nothing but naked greed and selfishness personified. If he was any more perfect an embodiment of the id, he would be coming out of a Krell machine and trying to kill Leslie Nielsen.

[5] The argument could be made that he falls in love with her because she is his equal; none before her have been worthy.

[6] It’s especially telling when one compares the characters played by three performers who were in both films. Dorothy Provine is a wishy-washy milquetoast in IAMx4W but a vivacious fireball in The Great Race, Peter Falk is reduced to a stereotypical Brooklyn cabbie (in Southern California!) but serves as one of the key comedic lynchpins in Blake Edward’s film, and even Marvin Kaplan, playing his patented put upon poor soul, has much more to do as Arthur Kennedy’s copy editor than Jonathan Winter’s punching bag.

[7] Chaplin and Keaton made physically large scale comedies (The Gold Rush and The General being two examples among many) built around smaller, more personal stories. W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth took great delight in leading a battalion of kamikaze model-Ts on a mission of vengeance against road hogs in 1932’s If I Had A Million, but they were only one segment in a series of filmed vignettes which typically focused on much smaller stories. Around The World In 80 Days is often pointed to as the precursor of IAMx4W and other prize race comedies using large numbers of cameo stars, but it lacks the insane / intense direct competition of the later films and comes nowhere close to the same level on onscreen motor mayhem.

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SDCC 2015 CCAS Spiritual Values In Comics Panel

by Buzz on 13/07/2015

SDCC 2015 Spiritual Values panel

Scott A. Shuford, yrs trly, Cory Jones, B Dave Walters,
Travis Hanson, Alesha L. Escobar and Luis Escobar.

Audio File Available For Download Here

Thanx, B Dave Walters!

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one night in the Desert Inn, circa 1968

by Buzz on 9/07/2015

Don Punchatz - howard hughes BWunderlying art by Don Punchatz

 

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MEH MAX: FURY ROAD

by Buzz on 8/07/2015

o-MAD-MAX-FURY-ROAD-facebook

somewhere in there is a movie

I finally got around to seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that achieved the rare accomplishment of obtaining perfect neutral cinematic buoyancy.

By this I mean the good stuff and the not-good stuff were so perfectly balanced as to neutralize each other. I neither loved not hated the experience, it neither delighted nor angered me.

It was as if it never really existed at all.

First off, the good stuff:

  1. Charlize Theron makes a great action star and was easily the most entertaining part of the film. We forgive you, Charlize, for not having enough sense to run perpendicular from a crashing starship in Prometheus.[1]
  2. Visually, a very pure cinematic experience, though it did get tiresome and boring by the last half hour (see below). It told the story and cleverly used toss away lines and little bits of business to convey a great deal of background information (or more properly, prompted audiences to fill in a lot of background information; see that below as well). A big part of that self-supplied background was presenting a feminist heroine pitted against corrupt, diseased, dying old white men and the pasty white war boys who blindly followed them, believing a false gospel of blood and power.[2] Subtle Mad Max: Fury Road ain’t. Nor complex.
  3. Great comic book characters, but next time they should get on-screen titles that introduce them since their names are rarely mentioned in a discernable way.
  4. Action stuff was really well staged. For the first hour it was all great fun crashing and bashing and banging and ka-wanging.
  5. Despite claims to the contrary, there’s a lot of CGI effects in this movie, but for the most part they were used to enhance practical effects and stunts, not create an ersatz reality: Replacing Charlize Theron’s arm with a see-thru prosthetic device, populating real crashing cars with half-naked war boys who go flying through the air, enhancing the accuracy and effects of various hurled devices and bombs, etc. This is the way to go with CGI: Whenever possible use practical or miniature effects and resort to CGI only to supply little touches and flourishes, not the whole scene.

All of which is countered by the not-good:

  1. Not a single fresh idea or plot element in this story: We know exactly how it’s going to turn out from the moment it starts. Nothing new or original or insightful.
  2. Ye gods, how do you make a movie that’s nothing but non-stop motor vehicle chases & crashes boring? By not giving the characters anything to do except chase and crash. Look at the great action pictures of the past: They all spent a significant amount of screen time showing who their characters were, getting us to feel compelled to follow them through to their destiny.   The Seven Samurai, A Fistfull Of Dollars, The Dirty Dozen, The Godfather, Lethal Weapon, all these took time to let us crawl into the heads of their characters.
  3. And speaking of Lethal Weapon, the lack of Mel Gibson is sorely felt. No snark, and we certainly wish his career well, but Tom Hardy is a walking hole on the screen.[3] I don’t know if Mel was offered the role but if he was and he didn’t take it, or if he wasn’t offered it in the first place, well, it robbed the movie of much needed emotional / character continuity and Mel of a chance to redeem his self-torpedoed career.
  4. The characters are no better developed than action figures; it would have been a great idea to introduce them by having them rip their way out of a blister pack. They are all clichés and stereotypes and in the context of this particular film that works well enough, but they are all flash and no substance. Anybody who hasn’t already seen a hundred and one mindless action movies isn’t going to be able to figure out what they want or why.
  5. It’s been reported that the film had no actual script but rather just a series of storyboards that the cast and crew referred to. Now, that certainly works insofar as you can track the story plot chain of events in Mad Max: Fury Road well enough, but the characters are reduced to walking clichés and pastiches. There was nothing really there for the actors to work with.

Summary:

The good parts are really good, but the not-good parts are really…empty. There are lots of movies where the good parts are counterbalanced by bad parts that lead one to ask, “WTF were they thinking?!?!?” but in Mad Max: Fury Road we don’t ask what the creators were thinking as it’s abundantly clear they weren’t thinking anything at all but rather taking the simplest / easiest paint-by-numbers approach to story telling.

The Mad Max franchise is better served as a series of video games than movies at this point. Have fun; I begrudge no one their pleasure.

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[1] Hey, Fox, want some free advice? Now that you’ve lost the Star Wars franchise to Disney and Ridley Scott is mucking things up with the Prometheus series, why not cast Charlize Theron as a grown up Newt kicking Alien ass all around the cosmos? Just explain away Alien 3 and Alien: Regurgitation as nightmares Ripley had in hypersleep and that Newt never died but made it home safe and sound.

[2] A large number of so called Men’s Rights Activists had the vapors over girl cooties being found in their all boys adventure. The glorious schadenfreude of their collective impotent hissy fit alone makes Mad Max: Fury Road worth the effort.

[3] Not that he’s ever given anything to actually do. Yeah, he comes up with The Really Cool Idea that turns everything around at the end of the movie but by then it’s as arbitrary a plot point as anything else in the movie.

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On The Convention Trail — San Diego Comic Con 2015

by Buzz on 8/07/2015

on conv trail 1950_04 ed_cartier_gnomepresscalendar

Well, it’s that time of year again, and I’m headin’ south to the San Diego Comic Con.  Look for me at:

Christian Comic Arts Society Open Mixer, FRIDAY, JULY 10:  8:30PM – 9:30PM, Room 26AB

Presented by the Christian Comic Arts Society and VeggieTales Super Comics (B&H Kids/Big Idea/Dreamworks), in partnership with Geeky Guys for GOD and Fans for Christ. This is an opportunity for Christian fans and professionals to intermingle, socialize, and network.  There will also be an epic quiz contest, with prizes to be awarded to contestants who prove to be the GEEKYEST.   Meet professionals including Cory Jones (Illustrator, VeggieTales Super Comics), Dan Lynch (Publisher, B&H Kids/LifeWay Christian Resources), Pastor Frederick Price (Crenshaw Christian Center), Buzz Dixon (G.I. Joe, Serenity Manga), Clint D. Johnson (FaithWalker), Scott A. Shuford (FrontGate Media), and other special guests to be announced.

 

Spiritual Themes In Comics, SATURDAY, JULY 11: 6:00PM – 7:00PM Room 4

With religion being at the forefront of recent world events, panelists will discuss the influence of spiritual themes in comics and other pop culture media.  They will delve into the importance of spirituality to the culture as communicated through comics.  Panelists will include Buzz Dixon (G.I. Joe, Serenity Manga), Cory Jones (Illustrator, VeggieTales Super Comics), B Dave Walters (Talk Radio Host “Rise Up”), Luis and Alesha Escobar (Masters of Time), and Travis Hanson (The Bean). Presented in partnership with the Christian Comic Arts Society & VeggieTales Super Comics.

 

Open Meeting of the Christian Comic Arts Society, SUNDAY, JULY 12:  10:00AM – 11:00AM Room 28DE

Come early prior to the panel for music provided by Geeks4Christ.  Representatives from faith based groups will discuss how they share the gospel within their respective sub-cultures.  Panelist include Eric Jansen (Foursquare Mission Press), Brendan Prout (Geeks4Christ), Dan Lynch (Publisher, B&H Kids/LifeWay Christian Resources), Clint D. Johnson (Christian Comic Arts Society), Joe Queen (Geeky Guys for GOD), and Steve Weese (Fans for Christ). Presented by the Christian Comic Arts Society and VeggieTales Super Comics, in partnership with Geeky Guys for GOD, Geeks4Christ, and Fans for Christ.

Also, as in years past, CCAS will be featuring book signings and giveaways throughout the weekend at their booth, #P-08.

 

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