Comic strip fans, by which I mean people still passionately angry about what Lynn Johnston did to Elizabeth in the last years of For Better Or For Worse, tend to fetishize original artists. It’s understandable. The first several years of a comic strip tend to be its strongest, when the ideas are most exploratory, the writing the most fresh, the characters the most deftly realized. Even if the original artist and writer stay on they tend to fall into patterns and lose the sense of exploration and discovery of a comic strip’s universe and subtle boundaries. When a new person, often a child or grandchild of the original artist, takes over things tend to be worse-received. Perhaps the new artist doesn’t wish to venture too near breaking the comic. Perhaps the new artist, with the best will and talent in the world, just isn’t in tune with the material the way the originator was during the second and third years of syndication.
And yet sometimes the original artist isn’t the best at exploiting the creative idea. Ordinary comic strip readers, by which I mean people who have never while reading Peanuts wondered about whether Schroeder is his first or last name nor formed a strong opinion on the question, probably don’t care. If the comic strip is entertaining what difference whether it’s written and drawn by the original artist, or by her granddaughter, or by the person who happened to be walking past Comic Strip Master Command when the old artist said she was retiring? There is wisdom in this. Good art is its own justification. Only boring trivia buffs care about the first two film versions of The Maltese Falcon. Star Trek: The Next Generation was an intriguingly-designed but dumb mess before Gene Roddenberry was sidelined from it[*]. Sometimes the cover artist records the song better. So here’s the best current example of this phenomenon.
[*] (Admitting that the production of the Next Generation was deeply screwed up early on, and that a lot of the design of the show was David Gerrold’s, who was thrown off the show in its first season.)
Sally Forth, by Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe.
Greg Howard, a lawyer figuring he could get in on some of that sweet syndicated-newspaper-comic-strip money, began Sally Forth in 1982, and needed only fifteen years to learn better. He first turned over the art to Craig MacIntosh, who’s since turned it over to Jim Keefe. The writing went to Francesco Marciuliano.
Jim Keefe’s a fine artist, the last person to draw the Flash Gordon comic strip. Sad to say, and despite some game efforts by Marciuliano, there isn’t much chance to show off action in Sally Forth. There really aren’t any action-adventure strips left. There’s Mark Trail and if it runs in any actual newspapers Rip Haywire, but past that the only real action in a comic is the occasional sports sequence. The modern comic strip mostly uses art as a scaffold to tether the word balloons. We occasionally decry this, but we go on reading comics with indifferent art as long as the writing is there. Keefe does well, though. Even the talky episodes — and there is a lot of talk in the strip — avoid the trap of being static. We get movement.
But, yeah, it’s Marciuliano’s writing that draws interest. Comic strip readers, casual and fans, will put up with almost any art if the writing’s good. Marciuliano made the strip good by what’s probably the only way to make an established thing good again in a lasting, durable way. He looked for emotional honesty in it. After some time spent learning the comic (his WordPress blog has an enlightening description of the earliest days) he wrote to that.
An example. Sally Forth’s original boss, a pompous idiot named Ralph, would in any responsible organization be fired. And eventually he was, and he lived in the horrible loneliness of a middle-aged person whose identity’s been torn away. Marciuliano isn’t a cruel writer. Ralph was allowed to find a new space, a job he does all right despite his own fears, a relationship with someone (Sally Forth’s sister) whose strengths and weaknesses complement his, making them functional, happy people. It’s a set of storylines which retool a stock character into a person.
He also did this by giving Ted Forth a personality. He became the guy who knows every Monty Python quote and had gotten just old enough to not deploy them at every opportunity. You know this kind of person. I’m one. I can still function in normal society. Ted functions, more obviously ridiculously, but he’s supposed to. (The term “man-child” keeps being brought up, not unfairly.) He’s credibly threatened to take over the comic strip altogether. And the comic keeps running towards being a parody of family-and-workplace comic strips.
Then it draws back, returning to emotional honesty. This summer has had Sally and Ted’s daughter Hilary going off to camp, giving them the chance to live like newlyweds again. And then a few weeks ago they realized they don’t feel that way. That there’s something wrong. Something fixable but they don’t know quite what it is or just how to do it. It was a surprise to them. It surprised me as reader. It surprised Marciuliano when he realized it was going that way.
But it was also true. Once made explicit it’s obvious this is a sensible way for their relationship to go. It’s the sort of developing human story that, ironically, story comics don’t do well anymore. The humor strips with continuity, and a storytelling style in which a theme is introduced and riffed on for a week, do it much better.
In one of the strip’s flights of fancy there’ve been a few weeks showing Hilary Forth and her friends ten years in the future, in that exciting time of life of being an adult but still relying on your parents because your car’s alternator is always burning out. Many comic strip fans saw it as a better Apartment 3-G than was the actual Apartment 3-G. Some proposed that Marciuliano was secretly auditioning to write it.
This week, Marciuliano takes over the writing for Judge Parker. That story strip’s taken it particularly rough from comic strip fans the last couple years. It’s gotten a lot of slagging for the not-even-glacial story progression — it’s hard to be sure, but I believe in all sincerity they’ve been covering the same three-day weekend since May of 2015 — and showering of the primary characters with undeserved and increasingly implausible riches, some of that from people who are actually thinking of Rex Morgan, which is pretty much the same strip anyway.
He promises, “Yes, there will be a car crash. And yes, the survivors will eat the dead. After all [ … ] it may be minutes before the band is found.” And he’s aware of the storytelling challenges: “If the car crashes then people will say, `I knew it.’ If the car doesn’t crash then people will say, `I knew it. Nothing bad ever happens to these characters’.” I am optimistic about all this.