What’s Going On With Judge Parker?


[Edited the 6th of June, 2017 to add] Thanks for looking to me for tips on the developments in Judge Parker. This post is from January of 2017. Summaries of more recent storylines should be available at this link at or near the top of its page.


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.

Judge Parker

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.

'You're an exceptional writer, Alan! I wish you only the best with your future projects!' 'Thank you, Delbert. I, uh, meant no disrespect to your wife' 'Oh, no worries. I thought [ her review ] was a hatchet job, too!' And his wife gets meaner and uglier and fatter-looking while this all happens.
Woody Wilson and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker for the 13th of December, 2013. Finally Judge (retired) Alan Parker knows that even the husband of the woman who hated his book understands she was wrong and his book was the greatest thing humanity has done since creating Tim Tams. The woman, Audrey Harrison, is described as a professor at Yale and Princeton, teaching literature and, I suppose Being an Internet Hater. Hey, if I could get a double tenure track job in Internet Hatering I’d take it too.

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.

Police at a confusing crash scene. The truck driver babbles about Dahlia. The other car, the one carrying Sophie's band, went over the edge ... and went missing from there. With skid marks indicating something was dragged away, somehow.
Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker for the 4th of September, 2016. There’s a lot of exposition established here, although you’re forgiven for missing it in the really lovely washes of color. It’s hard doing any good visual effects in the limits of comic strips, and to do a complicated, crowded night scene is well-nigh impossible. I didn’t take much time to write about Manley’s art, so please take this strip and ponder all the ways it could have been a disaster.

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.

A sinkhole swallows up most if not all of the misbegotten clothing-manufature storyline. Neddy pleads for help, 'Please help me get the employees! They're still in the factory!' There aren't emergency exits; they work in containerized cargo units, and are trapped. Local news is getting the disaster as it unfolds.
Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker for the 16th of October, 2016. Among the bits too crazily distracting to mention in the main article: to get needed office and floor space in the newly-built aerospace factory turned over to garment manufacture, they put in containerized-cargo units. The strip (with Wilson writing) explained this was totally a thing that some companies did for real, when they needed office space and had more vertical space than elevators available. And I have seen this sort of thing done, like to put up artist’s exhibitions at the piers in Wildwood, New Jersey. But it’s not the sort of thing to toss in without careful thought.

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.

'And so that brings us to today. Specifically, this morning. When Sophie Spencer, missing since September, entered the local diner and asked for some tea.'
Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker for the 9th of December, 2016. The strip jumped several months ahead after the twinned disasters of the car crash with Sophie and her band’s disappearance and the factory sinkhole. Here it came to the end of a week explaining how the town was starting to get back to whatever normal was anymore.
A habit of Marciuliano’s I didn’t have the chance to get into: his characters are aware of pop culture. Not to the point that Ted Forth is in Sally Forth, who’s in danger of someday merging with a Mystery Science Theater 3000 Obscure Riffs Explained page, but more than normal for the natural squareness of story comics. It can be a bit distracting when (eg, in a Sunday strip I decided not to include here) a character tell a radio call-in show host how she couldn’t take the aftermath of all this and so she ran, and she’s asked if putting on some Phil Collins might help. Some of that makes a character sound more natural; we all talk in references. Sometimes it comes out weird. But about forty percent of all human conversation are weird.

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.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index dropped below the psychologically important level of 100 today, in what analysts and traders called “yet another flipping time already”. Many were caught rolling their eyes and saying sheesh, with one old-time Usenet addict doing to far as to say “furrfu” out loud. We’re starting to doubt that 100 really is that important a psychological barrier to or from anything anymore.

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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.

6 thoughts on “What’s Going On With Judge Parker?”

  1. Pretty sure the oldsters were viewed as low-cost labor because they’d be getting Medicare, not Medicaid. That’s not means-tested, so no fraud would be involved. (OK, the Part B premium does go up if one has very high income, but I’m sure SpencerDriverCo. would never overpay employees.)

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    1. You may be right. I confess that for all I talk about the details of story comics I don’t take notes and I will mess up important details.

      Still, the spirit is there. The scam was to get workers doing a lot of physically demanding labor without paying for health care on really flimsy grounds. Maybe it works in the real world, for some awful company that would become a major scandal if we had the room to process scandals like that anymore.

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  2. Judge Parker is the worse with whatever it is they are trying to do…. No story, just pictures. Looks like the writers are on hiatus. If things don’t change soon I’m not looking at it anymore. It used to be the best in the comics. All I can say is it’s sorry now, almost like they don’t know what to do with it.

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    1. You think so? Huh. I’ve been generally happy with the pacing of Judge Parker lately. Even strings of single-panel daily pictures have felt to me like a reasonable change of pace, especially compared to plot- or exposition-heavy strips that preceded them.

      I am a bit concerned that the storylines are going to sprawl without resolution. It’s relatively easy to complicate a storyline but hard to bring it to a conclusion, as the fans of any long-running show whose creators keep promising “we have a plan for the final episode” know well. But, again, I’m an easy touch for endings; I’ll accept a resolution that doesn’t quite make logical sense as long as it feels fair enough.

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