Nothing Is Happening In Apartment 3-G: Medical Professionals May Be Brought In


And now to again explain to confused people what is going on in Apartment 3-G. After months of Margo wandering around in a confused and confusing daze, she’s been captured by the Just End The Story Already Fairies. These are blessed people who sometimes haul off and make a serial adventure stop by whatever method gets us out of a plot that might have been promising once but just isn’t working out. In this case the Just End The Story Already Fairies had available Margo’s dead fiancée Eric and Margo’s roommate Lu Ann.

Those aren’t powerful forces to Just End The Story Already with, but they’re making do. Margo was put back in The Apartment I Guess. And Tommie was brought back to examine her, despite Tommie’s declaration that she was quitting everything and leaving the apartment, her friends, her job, whatever it is she has. This might reflect Tommie deciding to postpone her new life in the face of Margo’s crisis. It might equally reflect that even Tommie can’t pay attention to whatever Tommie is going on about. Anyway, Tommie’s declared that Margo needs to get to the hospital. Despite Tommie saying this, this is correct, and by Friday they’ve whisked the action off to an indistinct set of backgrounds the narration box says is the hospital.

Given where this sagging mass of incidents was at the end of last week, this is a reasonable set of story developments. Unfortunately that draws the eye back to the decline in Frank Bolle’s artwork. Monday’s is the most unintentionally funny. The characteristically random arrangement of characters here makes it look like everyone is just watching a deranged Margo wandering around the room. It feels like a scene from a Mel Brooks spoof. Although, on reflection, I think the specific thing it’s reminding me of are the dousing scenes from the marginally competent 1958 movie The Thing That Couldn’t Die. I mean the ones the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew riffed by making revving engine noises.

Margo wanders aimlessly around the panels while Eric and Tommie determine she can't hear them or feel anything.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 21st of September, 2015. Though she seems unable to see, hear, or feel anyone, there is no evidence that Margo has got any pinball skills.

So naturally the next day Tommie has, presumably, fetched her wireless, receiverless, and sensorless stethoscope. And they all teleport to the street, the better to listen to Margo’s heartbeat. And good grief. I’ve seen the occasional joke that maybe the syndicate is assembling panels out of clip art, or just pulling old stock images out of the library. It’s a hard line to disprove when this happens. I mean, at least wireless stethoscopes are a thing that exists. Draw the generic room backgrounds, or literally no background at all, and a circular dot on Margo’s chest and the art would have actually matched the story.

Tommie's teleported Margo to the streets of some tiny city in order to listen to her heartbeat, which is a natural and sensible thing to do.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 22nd of September, 2015. Fun activity challenge: in what direction is the car from the first panel facing? Or is it a building with an unstable foundation?

Where is this leading? Who knows. The elements of Tommie wanting to leave and Margo having some weird extended amnesiac event feel like the sort of thing the strip might do if it were handing off the production to a new writer, or artist, or both. But the strip’s had a couple of similar events in the past few years with nothing coming of them. A couple years ago a crazed boyfriend set off a bomb in the apartment, just before New Year’s; the excuse of the place needing remodeling would be a natural “new showrunner” point. And before that the women got makeovers as part of one of those you-dress-horribly TV shows on the minor cable channels. This defies part of the strip’s premise — that it’s three stylish, hip young women living in the City — but would have been a fair concession to the strip being pretty dowdy and old-fashioned anymore. But the makeovers didn’t figure into anything, and the new outfits and hairdos didn’t last anyway. I suspect that ultimately the Just End The Story Already Fairies will be content if Margo’s psychotic break is put in the past and we go on to … oh, I guess it’s Lu Ann’s turn for a meandering and confused storyline.


That’s enough complaining. Over on the mathematics blog I talk about comic strips too, and since it’s been that sort of week, I talk about them a second time too. Please enjoy not all that ironically.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

9 thoughts on “Nothing Is Happening In Apartment 3-G: Medical Professionals May Be Brought In”

    1. I have, honestly, started to wonder. The idea that the strip is running library art to cover up for production glitches would at least make the poor match between what characters say they’re doing and what they’re doing make sense. It would also explain why the characters seem to move around randomly. The trouble is that library art would generally be much better than this; even three years ago the characters were more consistently and more solidly drawn.

      The other running joke has been that the artist and writer are at war with each other, each trying to subvert the other’s efforts. It’s hard to think that could be true either.

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        1. Also a plausible theory. The coloring of daily strips is done by people who clearly get no advice or guidance about what should look like what, and who often appear not to have been allowed to even read the strips they’re coloring. This has produced some confusion in Apartment 3-G today since they’re swapping Tommie and Lu Ann’s hair colors at random. It wouldn’t be that much farther to suppose the art is being subcontracted out to people who aren’t given the script.

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  1. The artist, Frank Bolle, is 91 years old. The friend of mine who brought this whole bizarre scenario to my attention has been wondering that maybe the whole plotline is an attempt by the writer to get someone to check on the artist’s [mental] health. It really feels like the artist is not quite grasping reality in a full and proper way, and yet the strips are being published anyway. 😦

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    1. Yeah, Bolle’s age does seem superficially to explain why the strip looks so shoddy, and why it’s declined so much in just the last few years. It’s easy to imagine stories for why he should continue drawing the strip despite an apparent inability to (and just wait for this week’s recap). Some are sweet, suggesting that nobody has the heart to fire, or force-retire, a man who’s spent his life illustrating and who presumably loves the work. Some are more dire, suggesting that after a life spent illustrating Bolle can’t afford to retire and has to keep at the job despite it all.

      There’s no telling from the information available. I do feel like a heel complaining, essentially, for the firing of a person who either doesn’t want to, or can’t afford to, quit; and it feels against my nature to protest what might be a sentimental decision.

      But the audience counts, and the normal reader can’t be expected to be informed, or take account of, presumably declining abilities. And the art is getting to be worse than the last years of Mandrake the Magician before Fred Fredericks retired, when it started looking the like the dailies were running fax copies of the actual art.

      Since Fredericks retired — mid-story — Mandrake has done nothing but rerun older, 1990s, stories. The franchise may be as dead as any franchise can be, and I can’t think that the strip’s sad fate its last few years is part of that. Dick Tracy and Mark Trail have gotten rejuvenated by new artists and writers; why shouldn’t other promising, fruitful characters?

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  2. Thanks for your (ongoing) discussions of the Apartment 3-G weirdness. I’ve been pondering it a lot this year, as the mismatches between story and art have gone from “maybe just sloppy” to “outright nuts.” In fact, there seem to be four separate issues here:

    1) The artwork (character art most notably) is shabby
    2) The backgrounds are strange (and change randomly from panel to panel)
    3) The action occurring in the panels doesn’t match the dialogue
    4) The stories are meandering and nonsensical

    There’s a fifth curiosity, which is that the syndicate has let all this go on for so long without firing the creatives and bringing in others. That’s perhaps the most curious point of all.

    I’ve been trying to come up with a unified field theory of Apt. 3-G that would cover all these points with one explanation, and I don’t think it can be done.

    However, here’s my best shot:

    Suppose that the artwork is being done *before* the story is written, rather than the usual vice-versa? Frank Bolle is 91 and can’t be bothered to follow someone else’s script every day. Instead, he somehow convinced the syndicate to let him draw the artwork first, and he just draws whatever he feels like. (Perhaps he is given a monthly story arc, which he is more or less ignoring.) The artwork gets passed on to the writer. She has a story in mind, and is genuinely trying to tell it, but has to insert her dialogue into the mouths of these characters who are always just standing around.

    That would explain why action doesn’t match dialogue — why Tommie is talking about using a stethoscope on Margo while no such thing is happening, etc. It would also explain why the stories fall flat.

    In that case, it all falls on Frank Bolle: his drawing talents have withered (hence the bad art) and he is either senile or too old to care about backgrounds, logic, etc. The writer, Margaret Shulock, is doing her best but has no contact with him and no influence over him. She’s trying to tell dramatic stories with artwork that essentially never changes.

    That covers everything (improbable as it may be).

    Except it doesn’t explain why King Features Syndicate puts up with it. I read elsewhere of their pre-Bolle struggle to find a comic artist who’s willing to do an old-school soap strip instead of the Avengers, but surely it can’t be *that* hard. Surely there are competent artists out there who would love to break into the comics.

    Are they willfully trying to kill Apartment 3-G, in order to have newspapers replace the strip with others from their stable that have more opportunities to thrive (and generate merchandising income)? That has to be the only logical conclusion, right?

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    1. Yours is a good speculation. At least it’s as good a speculation as anyone does have. And it’s at least prima facie plausible. My understanding is that Tom Batiuk plots out and draws Funky Winkerbean strips well ahead of deadline, and goes back to fill in the specific daily writing and word balloons much closer to deadline. If accurate this explains the often bizarre grammatical contortions his dialogue takes on. If there’s the wrong amount of space available for the amount of information that needs to be conveyed, then something has to go. And that thing is usually a natural writing style.

      So it would seem at least sustainable if Bolle’s been given, or taken, to just drawing scenes of two- and sometimes three-character shots and trusted that Shulock would write a story to match. I can imagine that sort-of working. In spirit it’s not far off that thing where someone takes a foreign movie and dumps the whole plot, dubbing over whatever nonsense they like. And that can kind of work, in that I guess it gave us Samurai Pizza Cats, although I can’t think of any example where it gave us an actually good non-comic output. (And I’m not sure there’ve been many good comic outputs either.)

      But, yes, it leaves the questions of ‘why’ unanswered. I can understand King Features not going to great effort to replace Bolle. For one, editors will not uproot something that doesn’t demand attention, because there are more problems to deal with than there is time to deal with them, and the strips are getting produced on deadline which is superficially the most important thing. And it’s hard to get someone to replace him, since soap opera strips are an inglorious posting and anyone with the discipline and speed required to do the role well for 260 dailies and 52 Sunday strips a year would get a better barely-paying job in the mainstream comics.

      I think there’s a real, serious prospect that King Features hasn’t got competent editors anymore, though. The last several months of Funky Winkerbean, for example, are hard to square with having anyone in charge who’s reading the strips and saying ‘have you gone insane?’ Judge Parker and Rex Morgan have similar issues.

      More, though, there’ve been comments from newspaper editors suggesting that King Features badly misreads what the market is like. These come mostly in terms of the syndicate demanding ever-increasing prices for the strips they offer even though newspaper readerships are collapsing, and the number of readers who’ll switch newspaper allegiances over who has Dustin is pretty low. I can’t fault King Features for wanting to be paid more — everybody does, really — but to warn a newspaper editor that they’ll just take their strips to the other paper in town is hilarious, since how many towns even have two local newspapers? New York City has a good chance of not making it to 2018 with more than one daily mass-market newspaper; you can’t scare the Albany Times-Union into coughing up more Take It From The Tinkersons.

      So I hate to say it, but it may be that King Features Syndicate really is running things ineptly enough they’re going to let Apartment 3-G collapse.

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