So, you know the difference between Rex Morgan, M.D. and Judge Parker? Yeah, me neither. I’m not meaning to be snarky here. It’s just both story comics are about people who nominally have exciting professional jobs but never get around to doing those jobs because they’re busy having strangers throw money and valuable prizes at them. They were even both created by Nicholas P Dallis (in 1952 and 1948, respectively). There’s a lot in common. That changed in a major way in 2016.
So a few years ago Alan Parker retired and kicked out a book based on one of his adventures as the comic’s original title character. (His son’s taken over the judgeship, and nominally heads the comic.) Writing’s a common second job for comic strip characters. And his book was fabulously successful. It’s a common hazard for comic strip characters. Mike Patterson of For Better Or For Worse had similar success. Adam of Adam @ Home is on the track for that right now. Even Tom Batiuk couldn’t keep his Funky Winkerbean character-author, Les Moore, from being a wildly successful author forever. Chris Browne, heir to the Hi and Lois/Hagar the Horrible fortune, had a comic strip Raising Duncan that was all about a married couple of wildly successful mystery authors.
The thing is, even by comic strip character standards, Alan Parker’s book was wildly popular. Everyone loved it. People recognized him from his dust jacket. An illegal-arms merchant backed off whatever he was up to because he was so impressed by the book. Parker’s book sold to the movies, and the movies wanted Alan himself to write the script. For lots more money. The recreation director of the cruise ship he was on loved the book and was so excited about a movie deal she showed him how to install script-writing software on his computer. And got him started on writing a script everyone agreed was just the best script ever.
It’s not just that the book succeeded. It’s that the universe arranged for everyone in the world to love the book. Almost everyone. There was an English professor, allegedly a professor at Princeton and Yale, who wrote a review panning it. Parker tracked her down and publicly berated her, and her husband agreed with Parker. The book was just that good. And that’s how Judge Parker built itself up through to summer of last year.
A bit of success is fine. First-time authors, high school garage bands, start-up businesses fail all the time. Even more often they get caught in that mire where they aren’t succeeding, but they’re also not failing clearly enough to walk away from. Surely part of the fun in reading stories about them is the stories in which they manage to succeed. It’s the wildly undeserved success that made the comic an ironic-read masterpiece, topping even Rex Morgan, M.D.. Or just infuriating. If you’ve ever known a high school band trying to do a gig, you’re annoyed by the idea Sophie Spencer should be able to demand a hundred dollars of the band’s whole take for the night in exchange for her deigning to be the merch girl. If you know anything about business you find something annoying in Neddy Spencer starting her clothing line by pressuring the country-music star head of an aerospace company to giving her a newly-completed plant and hiring a bunch of retired textile workers who’ll be cheap because they can use Medicaid instead of getting paid health benefits. Plus there’s some crazy stuff about international espionage, the kind that thinks it’s all sleek and awesome and glamorous rather than the shabby material that gets documented in books with titles like Legacy Of Shame: Failures Of The Intelligence Community And Their Disastrous Consequences In [ Your Fiasco Here ]. At some point it looks like a satire of the wish-fulfillment dreams of a creative person.
(I may be getting some of the characters’ last names wrong. There’s a lot of mixing of the Parker, Spencer, and Driver families and I do lose track. There’s what has historically been The Chosen Family; call them what you will.)
So that’s where things sat when the strip’s longtime writer Woody Wilson turned things over, in August, to Francesco Marciuliano. I expected Marciuliano to do well. He’s been writing Sally Forth all this century and become the prime example of how a comic’s original author is not always the best person to produce it. (He showcases that, and often writes about it, over on his WordPress blog, where he also shares his web comic.) I’d expected he would tamp down or minimize the stuff that could be brought back to realistic, and quietly not mention again the stuff that was just too much.
He hasn’t quite. He took the quite good cliffhanger, one literally drawn from the days of cliffhangers, that Wilson left him: Sophie and her band driving back from a gig, a little drunk and a lot exhausted, on a precarious mountain road in the rain, encountering a distracted truck driver who’s a little too slow to dodge them, and the kids go tumbling over the edge. Solid story stuff. You can see all kinds of potential here, not least to dial back the worst excesses of Sophie’s dictatorial powers over the band she forced herself into.
Marciuliano went crazy instead. The truck driver wasn’t merely distracted. He was driving illicitly, with a satchel full of money, and apparently stalking a call-in radio show host. Possibly he was carrying out a hit on the kids. The crashed car went missing. The kids, except one — not Sophie — went missing. For months. The intimation is that some of the shadowier figures who’re in the Parker orbit wanted to send them a warning, but things got messier than even they imagined. You know, the way a good crime-suspense novel will have brilliant plans executed by people not quite brilliant enough and then all sorts of people are trying desperately to patch enough together to get out of the way.
It’s a daring strategy. Ambitious. Exciting. In the immediate aftermath of the change the results were particularly suspenseful. Marciuliano, probably trained by Sally Forth out of the story-strip habit of over-explaining points, had enough stuff happen that it could be confusing. (I did see Comics Curmudgeon commenters complaining about things that had already been addressed in the text.) But it felt revolutionary. It reached that point story strips rarely achieve. There wasn’t any fair guessing what the next day’s installment might bring.
Some other pieces of the old excesses were resolved no less dramatically. Marciuliano ended the quagmire of the ever-less-plausible clothing-factory storyline by throwing it into a quagmire. A sinkhole opened underneath the factory, taking the entire thing down on the opening day for the project, sinking it beneath the recriminations and accusations of fraud and misconduct that should have kept the idea from starting. And I appreciated the dramatic irony that so much utterly wrong behavior on the main characters’ parts could finally be undone by something that was not in any way their fault. (I mean, what kind of person figures “we should hire the elderly because they’ll be so happy to get any work we can make them cheat for their medical care”? I mean any person who should be allowed into civilization.)
And others are just getting tamped down mercifully. Alan Parker’s movie has fallen into that state where everybody’s happy to have meetings but nothing ever happens. He’s eager to write another book. He’s got one sentence. He doesn’t like it. That is, sad to say, more like what really happens.
Is it successful? I say yes. I say it’s the biggest turnaround in story comics since Dick Tracy stopped being incompetent. The experience reminds me of the time Andy Richter mentioned how he and his wife had meant to go bowling ironically, “but we ended up having actual fun”.
Have I got doubts? Well, sure. I always have doubts. The main doubt is that September through December tossed a lot of new pieces and plot ideas into the air. There’ve been a lot of questions raised about what’s going on, and why, and how they’re trying to do whatever they’re up to. Questions are the relatively easy part of writing. The trick is getting a resolution that makes any sense. Bonus points if it makes sense when you go back and read the start of the story again.
Will that happen? I don’t know. That’s Marciuliano’s problem. I just have to have a reaction to it. He’s got my attention. Of the story strips going on right now that’s the one I’d recommend giving yours.