I remember reading this week’s story strip as a kid. It was obviously an important one as it got so much space in the Sunday Star-Ledger‘s pretty good comic section. It didn’t look like a story strip, what with it having knights and sword fights and I would swear the occasional dragon. But I never knew what was going on, since there weren’t any word balloons and everything was explained with these giant blocks of text that I thought were trying to sound olde-tymey. I’m curious how my memory matches the actual fact, but it’s so hard online to look up stuff from the 70s and 80s.
Mark Schultz and Thomas Yeates’s Prince Valiant has good reasons for looking like that. The strip, created in the late 1930s by Hal Foster, keeps that close to its roots, with the action in the panels and the dialogue kept quite separate. This separation was not idiosyncratic when the comic strip started. Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, Flash Gordon and other adventure strips of the time similarly ran their Sunday continuities with action and dialogue separated.
There is, yes, a lot of history to read in the comic strip, which just finished its 80th year. The comic strip reached panel number 4,176 this Sunday. They put the number right there in the comic, as if they’re trying to lure in the slightly obsessive reader. Kind of them. You don’t need to know it. The characters are straightforward enough to drop in on. The settings are classics, at least for a kind of story I didn’t really read while growing up. But that are at least good backdrops for cartoons set in those kinds of settings. The home setting is Camelot-era England and the lands surrounding the North Sea. But sometimes the gang goes on an expedition. Like, now.
I’m not sure when Team Valiant set out on an adventure to the east. But they’ve been tromping around the Far East for well over a year now and I forget what they set out to accomplish. What they have done is have a series of adventures in fresh, attractive settings. And they have looked great, which is tolerably true to both longstanding Western European folklore about the riches of the East and to how, historically, Western Europe of that time was a pit. At least compared to rich, stimulating places like Byzantium and Arabia and India and China.
The current part of the storyline is just a few weeks old, so it’s a good chance to hop on Prince Valiant’s boat if you want. Valiant has just overseen the downfall of a Himalayan-or-so tyrant named Azar Rasa who was hoping to use the awesome powers of the Soul of Asia to conquer Asia. And what is the Soul of Asia? It’s some kind of briefcase-size magical energy construct thingy with an awesome lot of power. It’s potent stuff, built on the learnings of the giants living deep in the Earth.
So, Valiant escaped Azar Rasa’s prison by trying, since even in long-running comics security guards aren’t any good at their job. And with the help of the giants, who dress like yetis — did I mention the giants dress like yetis before? — the good guys blew up the mountain and killed the last of Azar Rasa’s followers. They pitched the Soul of Asia and Azar Rasa into Mount Doom, and all is as well as could be. That’s where 2017 started.
The giants who dress like yetis are grateful to Team Valiant for helping clear up this mess where they kind of let humans get their grubby hands on a briefcase of unimaginably vast destructive power. (They hadn’t wanted to let the original sorcerer-king take it, but he had the thing, and promised not to grab it back if he didn’t use it.) So they offer help, promising to show an easier way that Our Heroes can get to wherever the heck they’re going. They lead the gang deep into the earth and hook them up with a boat and a team of pink dolphins to haul the boat through the underground river.
It’s going well.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index rose a point today and everyone is blaming the peanut-butter-yoghurt-shelled pretzels they got at the store.
In other news, my love was directed to a pinball podcast from 2007. It features something like an interview with Python Anghelo, crazypants designer behind video games like Joust and pinball games like Popeye Saves The Earth, the game with the most intense backstory ever when you consider a Popeye pinball game really just needs to set up stuff that he can then punch.
The interview is enlightening because it tells me what it would be like to interview a Dr Bronner’s Soap Label that had gone into game design. I think the host asks two, many three question, one of which gets answered, and then just lets Anghelo talk. Here’s the specific episode, TOPcast show 42 from the 1st of July, 2007. In at least one point Anghelo seems to suggest he composed poems for guidance for his game concepts, and I don’t know of any of them which have come to light, but the poem for the cancelled Zingy Bingy must have been to die for. Or to kill your game division for.
For those who somehow don’t know the big names of 80s/90s pinball design: there were a bunch of big names in 80s/90s pinball design. Don’t worry about who’s who. Zingy Bingy was a concept for making an “adult” pinball game. According to legend it featured things like flippers that were shaped to resemble a part of the male anatomy which was not fingers and which could under the right circumstances grow. Also according to legend the project went on until an actual grownup at headquarters heard this was going on. That covers the essential background. Go, enjoy listening, and pause anytime you start feeling dizzy.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose two points before trading was suspended in order that everyone could make valentines to give to all the other traders, thank you. Also to wonder about people who complain that they make kids give valentines to everybody else in class these days because they’re all pretty sure that’s the way it was done back when they were kids too, and it’s not like it was any hassle back then.
So The Phantom, The Ghost Who Walks, is a bit of an overachiever. It’s understandable. He’s the 21st in the line. Consider how many family businesses fall apart when the fourth generation would have taken over if anyone could be found to run things. He must’ve been raised barely able to imagine anything else in life. So while Mark Trail might take Sundays off and Alley Oop might just reiterate his adventures and Spider-Man might get a bit of work done, The Phantom gives us a whole separate story. It’s the only story strip doing that. So it gets a second round of story-recapping from me. Last week I covered the dailies and stuff hasn’t changed much since then.
The Phantom (Sundays).
The Phantom is sworn to defend the people of Bangalla. But it’s a complicated, global world. It always has been. The first Phantom was an English sailor caught in the spice trades. The Phantoms who’ve been on-panel since the comic strip began haven’t been less worldly. This serves some good purposes. For one, it defuses the strip’s built-in concept of the White Savior To These Helpless Black People. That’s also defused by the development and ongoing presentation of Bangalla as a functional liberal democracy. But it helps if The Phantom uses his time and suspiciously great wealth to fight crime wherever it leads, anywhere in the world. And it means the strip can leave the jungle behind without straining its premise.
The current Sundays storyline began the 26th of June, 2016, with a plane crash, always the start to a good jungle adventure if you’re not on it. The plane carries Mikey D’Moda, teenaged idiot scion of the Chicago Mob who’s being traded to the Chinese crime syndicates in exchange for not having him around until he’s eighteen. That and a shipment of authority-attracting guns are supposed to bring a truce to the underworld, because that plan always works out.
Mikey escapes to a freedom lasting whole minutes before The Phantom catches him. Meanwhile the grownups in the Chicago and China Mobs get arrested and interrogated, there to scatter some plot seeds that haven’t yet blossomed. Incidentally along the way the Jungle Patrol gives one of the prisoners the private phone call to his lawyers he’s entitled to, but “accidentally” records it on a phone. I mention this because it’s something true about The Phantom universe.
The good guys are, basically, good guys. But they fall way short of the superhero ideal. They’re not scrupulous about civil rights or the law or ethical behavior. See, for example, The Phantom’s vast wealth, said to be acquired from among other things pirate treasures. That’s fine for a pulp adventure hero; but, in the real world, stuff doesn’t stop having a legitimate owner just because someone else stole it. The Phantom could probably make a claim on stuff that has no recoverable provenance, but he’s not going to that effort.
The good guys typically get away with their cheating because the writers are on their side. But it does come back to bite them sometimes. One of the lingering human rights abuses has been The Phantom keeping the terrorist Chatu in a private, secret prison. This is understandable. Chatu arranged the kidnapping and faked-murder of The Phantom’s wife from his actual professionally-built prison cell. But, still. Is keeping him in a wood hut in the jungle really better? I believe that’s being left around to generate future stories.
After spending minutes listening to Mikey, The Phantom decided the thing to do was punch the crime out of both Chicago and China. He heads first to Chicago and then, conveniently, China follows along. Or someone does, anyway. In a long sequence The Phantom’s chased around the D’Moda Crime Estate by mysterious shadowy figures who look to be ninjas. Yes, I associate ninjas more with Japan and turtles than I do with China, but c’mon. It’s the Chinese Mob. They can hire out. My supposition is that the Chinese Mob is offended that the truce fell apart when Mikey’s plane crashed. This seems to me unfair. But I suppose if you aren’t sure about the good faith of another party then it’s not worth your time to work out the difference between accidents and betrayal.
So, now, The Phantom is in the dying elder D’Moda’s bedroom, as at least one ninja closes in. The Phantom’s getting to some Peter Parker-y levels of snark against his opponent. It’s a good way of keeping the panels from being too much just guys hitting each other and grunting.
And now the index rose back above the psychologically important 100 barrier. Likely this reflects people’s relief at having that whole index-rises unpleasantness behind them and how we’re just going crazy eating the Valentine’s Day candy while it’s in style.
And now, just a little late, I get around to reviewing my readership numbers for these parts (and parts of parts) for January (for 2017). It was a well-read month for Another Blog, Meanwhile. It may have shown me my true blogger-calling.
So in January 2017 there were, WordPress says, soem 2,340 page views from 1,361 distinct visitors. That’s way up from December 2016’s 1,396 views from 818 visitors, and November’s 1,219 views from 708 visitors. It’s my most-read month since the Apartment 3-Gocalypse and that time I got named in The Onion AV Club. (This is the sort of complicated, obscure thing I think is a good joke. The AV Club article didn’t name me, even though the article was written by a guy I knew from Mystery Science Theater 3000 fanfic-writing, but I used his offhand description of me to give this blog its name. Now that I have explained this you understand why it is appropriate to be amused.)
That fact, and the list of the five most popular articles this past month — four of which got over a hundred page views each! — tells me something important in what people like from me. January’s most-read articles:
Mark Twain I imagine popped up because it’s a pretty good piece people might have heard about but not known where to find. I’m happy to keep them from learning about archive.org if it’s any good to me. The Popeye pinball reappeared because a thread on pinball site Tilt Forums about awful, awful games referred to it. Popeye has a really crazypants backstory you have to see to believe, and then not believe.
But the rest is all me explaining story strips. Just like my Apartment 3-G narration. All told six of the ten most popular essays were explaining story strips. People want to know what’s happening in the story comics, without actually reading the story comics, for which I can’t blame them. I mean, I enjoy them, but they are a lot of padding and reaction shots and repetitions of what was already established and sometimes you just want to know why everyone is all tense today. I’m glad to discover this need and my ability to fill it. It’s just a shame I figure I’ve got two weeks before I run out of newspaper-syndicated story strips. I don’t figure to move on to web comics. There’s too many of them, for one thing, and nothing in Endtown needs explanation until that point two-thirds of the way into a story when it’s impossible to guess what’s going on or why.
Now to page views per country, so far as WordPress tells me anything:
Hong Kong SAR China
Trinidad & Tobago
United Arab Emirates
Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates were single-reader countries in December also. No countries are on a three-month single-reader streak. My “European Union” visitor is back, or replaced. I make this out as readers from 48 countries, with the United States strikingly dominant there. 14 single-reader countries. In December there were 42 countries listed altogether, 18 of them single-reader. So I suppose despite appearances the world is getting a little better, at least by that measure.
What else is there to measure … oh. There were 163 pages liked around here in January, up from December’s 137 and November’s 134. There were 39 comments, which doesn’t sound like many for the number of page reads, but that’s better than December’s 20 or November’s 14. I think the secret is to say wrong stuff about the comics and then people will come in to try fixing it.
February started with the page here having got 47,049 page views from some 25,045 distinct viewers or other. And WordPress claims I’ve got 711 followers on WordPress, plus six by e-mail. For at least the third month running the most popular day around here was Tuesday, which got 18 percent of page views. The most popular hour was midnight, 8 percent of page views, just like the last two months. I don’t know why Tuesday should stand out, but it’s only barely standing out.
Anyway, if you’d like to follow me, you’re probably reading this already. But there should be a ‘Follow This Blog’ link, for WordPress or for e-mail, somewhere around here. Probably on the upper part of the page, if I understand the theme right. We’ll see when someone complains I have it wrong.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index rose two points today and someone pointed out that could be called a “safety”. No dice. The moment is passed.
Oh, sheesh, right. Yeah. Usually I have some kind of funny picture or a screen grab or something to put up and coax people into reading this anyway even though they’re not all that crazy about hearing about the thing they maybe already read. Where did I … um. I don’t know where I have one this week. No, Compu-Toon today parses too.
All right, I can work this. I’ve got like eighty thousand pictures, I just have to pick any of them and there’ll probably be something interesting going on. Let’s see.
There, see, that’s got … uh … I can point out how … well, anyone should be able to make a good joke about …
Oh, this is bad.
Wait a second.
Computer, enhance. Again. Enhance.
On the information screen there. That’s almost clearly some kind of giant monster-y creature sprawling across the whole highway. This means something. Send our agents out right away!
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index dropped eight points in trading today. Investors had started to hope it would drop a clean ten points so they could joke about having scored a safety. The joke doesn’t quite make sense, but it won’t be usable at all until whenever football season gets started again in like July or August or whenever that is and they didn’t want to have to wait that long.
Today’s, and next week’s if all goes well, What’s Going On segments are about the same strip. That’s because it solves the problem of Sunday and weekday readerships being different in decisive form. The weekday and the Sunday strips carry on different stories. Neither sequence has to wait for the other. Surely these can be fit into some order so as to preserve the all-important continuity of The Phantom‘s universe. I admit I’ve never tried.
The Phantom (Weekdays).
I snarked about the importance of continuity to The Phantom. It’s reflexive. The comic strip, started in February of 1936 by Lee Falk, has a continuity. An important one, even.
The Phantom, The Ghost Who Walks, is the 21st of that line, descendant of a chain of superheroes defending the African nation of Bangalla from, in the 16th century, pirates. In the 21st century, it’s … pirates and terrorists. Sometimes stranger stuff. The comic strip shared a universe with Mandrake the Magician and some of Mandrake’s weirdness would leak over. Some of the Mandrake characters have made appearances in The Phantom since that comic ended.
The rough premise of The Phantom may seem overly familiar. Costumed superhero who lives in a secret cave watches for menaces to his homeland. When he finds them he’ll punch them hard enough to leave a mark for decades. (A specially-constructed ring helps with this.) He hasn’t got any superpowers per se. But he deploys intelligence and great physical shape and training plus stunning private wealth to get as close as practical. If it sounds like every costumed superhero comic ever, then remember it got started a couple years before Batman did. I figure to talk about The Phantom‘s universe more next week.
The comic strip, weekday and Sunday threads, are written by Tony DePaul and have been since 1999. The weekday comics have been drawn by Mike Manley since May of 2016. Manley also draws Judge Parker. The Sunday strips have been drawn by Terry Beatty, the artist and now writer for Rex Morgan, M.D..
So here’s the current Phantom weekday storyline. Its essentials were laid out in a week of strips starting the 7th of November and hosted by “Lee Falk”. That’s one of the charming conventions of the comic: a representation of the strip’s originator gives the dramatis personae and necessary backstory for the adventure ahead. If the story’s run long he might pop in again to recap for new or simply lost readers. Or to advance the story to a new point. It’s common enough for cartoonists to be characters in their own strips, but it’s almost always humor strips. Story strips usually leave narration as done by some anonymous source. “Lee Falk” doesn’t really say anything that couldn’t be done by unattached narrative box. But it adds a neat personal touch to the starts of stories that he does.
So the first element is Orson Burley, big, bearded tycoon in the enormous-wealth industry. He’s heard this legend of The Phantom and figures it’d be a good subject for a postage stamp. I have to say I’m on Burley’s side on this. It seems odd that the Republic of Bangalla wouldn’t have already used a semi-mythic protector-legend as subject for a stamp. Local mythical figures on stamps seems like elementary nation-building. Issuing cultural stamps are the first thing you do after gaining independence from the British. Well, the first thing after renaming the street Government House is on to the native word for “Freedom”. But President Lamanda Luaga is cold to the idea, and warns The Phantom of Burley’s investigation. I understand a secretive superhero trying to keep his secrets. But the legend’s been going for four centuries now; this can’t be the first serious scholarly investigation of the thing. Well, so it goes.
Burley’s insisted on learning as much as possible about The Phantom and going ahead with his postage stamp. This despite the warnings of the President and of his limo driver. And Burley’s startled that anyone could see The Phantom as a legend dangerous to investigate. I confess I’d be, too.
Second piece is Akini Ogutu, “CEO of a multinational giant headquartered in Mawitaan”. While Bangalla’s a basically functional democracy it still has problems, even in its capital city. She got targeted and kidnapped, for ransom, by one of those gangs you hear about that hold executives for ransom. The Phantom’s not-at-all-worrisome private army, the Jungle Patrol, finds the hideout. The Phantom goes in alone and rescues her in a daring, exciting raid that full of the sort of superheroics you’d expect. Also that make you wonder, well, why does he have his Jungle Patrol if they aren’t at least doing support on this sort of thing?
(OK, it’s because The Phantom tries to keep his Phantom life and his Jungle Patrol life separate. The Jungle Patrol doesn’t even actually know their leader is The Phantom. They know him only as The Unknown Commander, who issues orders over the phone, and that’s not a potential danger pit at all, is it? But that does shift the question to why not have his army move against the criminal gang, which would seem safer all around?)
Anyway, it must all have been brilliant because he rescued Ogutu. Burley can’t believe Ogutu’s claim that she was rescued by The Phantom, and figures to go on with his research and stamp production. And this week The Phantom has gone to Burley, presumably to explain why not being on a stamp is such a freaking big deal for him. Maybe the 16th Phantom was betrayed by someone selling a fake Penny Red or something.
I mean, the best I can figure is The Phantom figures he’s most effective if he’s surrounded in clouds of mystery and legend. And getting a commemorative postage stamp is the start of a process that leaves him as exotic and remote as Santa Claus. But part of The Phantom’s schtick is that he’s surrounded by a lot of legends and I don’t get how a postage stamp depiction is going to make that greater or lesser. And it isn’t like he hasn’t got, and encouraged, a lot of “old jungle sayings” about his legacy. Is he worried they’ll paint him from an unflattering angle? It seems like a misplaced reaction and I hope something in the coming weeks clarifies matters.
Next week I’ll try to explain the Sunday storyline.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index fell nine points today, inspiring people to point out where we were at this time a week ago. This time a week ago we were at 124. Hoo boy but it’s been a long week.
So, on to something I noticed while looking at pictures of the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Vox Sola”, and don’t go asking why I’m looking at screen grabs from Star Trek: Enterprise episodes.
Look, I just need to do things like that, because if I didn’t, how would I find pictures like this? Exactly. I’d have to wait for someone else to find the pictures for me and that’s just inefficient. Let me have this. And by letting me have this, I mean letting you have this from me. So here it is:
“And that, Captain, is why we have a regulation against leaving ship without the giant box of Kleenex.”
Have a better thought for this? I’m not surprised, and please, take some space here to fill it in:
Thank you! Yes, I see the risque jokes too.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index rose seven points today but nobody was able to feel good about it. You know why? They started thinking about the other timeline, you know, the good one. You know what’s going on there? Over there leading Republicans are already calling her “King Hitlery” and demanding Clinton and Obama be impeached. And you know why? It’s because of this refugee Libyan orphan who sang at Clinton’s inauguration ball and did this rendition of “America The Beautiful” so haunting that the whole world was reduced to this blubbering mass of joy. Like, for a week-plus the whole Internet was happier than it’s been since Pokemon Go came out and everybody felt so good about that. It broke V-E day’s record for strangers hugging each other in public. And now there’s a bunch of unfounded — and, a 20-month investigation will concede, after the midterm elections, utterly false — allegations that the singer got preferential admission just so that she could sing at the inaugural ball. And it’s the start of taking this wonderful transcendant moment and dragging it into mud. And they’re dealing with that over in the good timeline and can’t believe how they can’t have nice things, and look where we are now, and when you look at that what does trading volume on the Another Blog, Meanwhile index even matter?
I know, I bet you all thought I was going to go from The Amazing Spider-Man over to The Phantom, as that’s the other newspaper-syndicated superhero comic strip. I admit I’m not sure when’s the last time I saw Alley Oop in a newspaper. It might have been decades ago at my grandparent’s house, when I also saw The Amazing Spider-Man there on the cover of the New York Daily News comics section and nowhere else. (People with records of the Daily News comics page offerings, please write in to let me know if that’s possible!) Big deal. It certainly used to run in newspapers, and for all I know it still does. It looks like one. Plus it’s easier to explain than The Phantom and I had a week far to distracted to deal with complicated strips.
So, Alley Oop started in 1932 by V T Hamlin as essentially a sitcom/adventure strip. It was about Alley Oop and his prehistoric land of Moo. He’d do caveman-type stuff, like adopting a pet dinosaur Dinny and being alternately indispensable to or on the run from Moo’s King Guz. Sometimes they’d be in the sort of low-scale war with Tunk’s neighboring kingdom of Lem that you got in those days when the world had maybe twenty people in it. Hey, caveman comics and cartoons were a viable thing back then, and if the whole genre’s been taken over by The Flintstones that’s not the fault of the properties working a generation before them.
And surely Alley Oop would have gone wherever rambling story comics go if not for a 1939 tale (recently reprinted by Dark Horse, so you can read it in book form). In that, the brilliant 20th-century scientist Dr Elbert Wonmug, testing out his time machine, plucked Alley Oop into the present day and suddenly the strip had that touch of madness that allows for greatness. A mildly humorous adventure strip about cavemen is fine enough. But a mildly humorous adventure strip about time-travelling cavemen? That’s brilliant. I don’t know how the thing has resisted adaptation into a goofy 70s live-action show or a modern movie.
So it’ll say something about the strip that the 20th, now 21st, century scientist is Dr Elbert Wonmug. Do you get it? Because I had been reading the strip reasonably faithfully for like six years before someone, I think an essay at the front of a collection, explained it to me. How would you translate won (one) mug into German?
I mention that not for it being the record-holder in me only belatedly getting the joke, as it’s not. There’s a Far Side cartoon that holds that record at something like 15 years before I got it. I mention it to calibrate the sort of humor the strip has. It’s never a thoroughly serious comic, and a lot of silly business does go on, especially slapstick. But it’s not primarily a joke strip. If something’s funny it’s because there’s an absurd situation, such as (last year) Guz deciding that the fantastically unqualified Alley Oop should be the kingdom’s doctor. Alley Oop didn’t do very well. But I think that’s because the whole storyline was (in-universe) done in a couple of days, and nobody’s at their best their first week on the job. He’s pretty good at picking up stuff; anyone who can go from primitive Moo to 1939 Long Island with only a few missteps has got solid resources.
The current storyline started around October of 2016. (There wasn’t a clean break from the previous story, a common feature of Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s writing.) And it’s built on a premise designed to shake seven-year-old me out of watching In Search Of and reading the paranormal-events section of The People’s Almanac 2. Aliens have come to invade Moo.
Oh, they didn’t talk about invading at first. Volzon, of the planet Jantulle, spent some time showing off his superior technology and negging on Alley Oop’s sensor readings. Volzon then declared ancient Earth to be just about perfect for their needs: the Jantulle population’s exploding and their plant-frog-men need colonies. Earth will do nicely. Alley Oop pointed out that their superior technology was no match for his big stick. And it must be said, he’s quite good with sticks. And punching. Alley Oop does pretty well satisfying the gap left by Popeye not really being a comic strip anymore. And then Volzon went and spoiled things by whipping out his mind-control device. That’s about where things stand just now.
Of course the Jantulle invasion is going to be foiled. For one, comic strips like this just don’t end in aliens conquering Earth. Not permanently, anyway. For another, we know that since Earth isn’t a colony world of alien plant-frog-men the invasion does come to nought. And it’ll be up to Alley Oop and his team to do something about that. The comic strip, as best I can determine, doesn’t try to pull any nonsense about time travel resulting in alterante timelines or histories or anything like that. There’s the history of how things worked out, and it works out that way because the protagonists of our stories did something about it.
For a premise that’s got time travel baked into it there’s refreshingly little talk about paradoxes, or fixing up a solution by planting the stuff you needed to escape it afterwards. It’s rather like (most of) the old-school Doctor Who serials that way. The time travel is a way of getting to interesting settings. Mostly, of late, they’ve been ancient Moo, or the present day. There was recently a curious story where Alley Oop and his partner Oola travelled to 1941 and left a message with then-contemporary Dr Wonmug. This didn’t threaten the stability of the spacetime continuum or threaten paradoxes or anything; it’s just, history worked out like that.
And yeah, somehow, 1941 Wonmug wasn’t impossibly young nor 2016 Wonmug impossibly old. All the characters are holding at about the same age and if you don’t want to accept that maybe you should read some other comic strip about time-travelling cavemen and their dinosaurs.
Oh yeah, the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and cavemen never lived together, never even got close to together. To my delight the comic strip acknowledged this back in 1939 or 1940, when Hamlin was discovering he had a new premise taking over his comic. They explained how there could possibly be dinosaurs in Moo: they don’t know. Obviously things are more complicated than they realize. So far as I’m aware Hamlin and his successors writing the strip haven’t gone back and filled in some explanation for how this impossibility came about. It’s just part of how this fictional world works. I’m honestly impressed that they resist filling in some explanation. You could come up with any number of explanations that work as long as nobody thinks through their implications. “We don’t know; the world is more complicated than we realize,” though? That’s irrefutable. And it’s even what an actual scientist would say to an unanswerable mystery like that. (Oh, they’d work up hypotheses and start testing, yes, but it would start from an acknowledged ignorance.)
A last note. I’d mentioned with The Amazing Spider-Man the problem story strips have with Sundays. All the soap opera comics adopted a Sundays-as-recap-days policy. The Sunday strip would repeat the action of the Monday through Saturday preceding, a mercy for people who get only the Sunday comics but killing the pacing. Amazing Spider-Man just barrels through Sundays as though nothing weird were going on and trusts people to fill in the blanks. Alley Oop works closer to the soap opera model. Sunday strips largely recapitulate what happened the previous week, but in a clipped, notes-for-class version. The daily strips have more texture, more of the fun little asides filling in plot points. If you were to adapt Alley Oop to another medium, you’d use the Sunday strips to guide the plot and the daily strips to write the scenes.
And the Sunday strips don’t recap the previous Monday-to-Saturday. They recap, roughly, the previous Tuesday to the coming Tuesday. That is, the Sunday strip tells you what’s going to happen the coming Monday and Tuesday. (More or less.) Of course a comic strip about time travelling cavemen would be a little out of synch with the weeks. That just makes sense, surely.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index dropped five points overnight. No one really knows why but the leading hypothesis is that it’s related to the neap tides because everybody agrees “neap tides” are the best tides. Neap.
OK, first, more comic strips over on my mathematics blog, because darned it I am not going to let a 1959 installment of Hi and Lois toss in a bit of calculus without explaining just what is meant by it. I hope you enjoy because there’s not going to be another of those comic strip explanation posts until Saturday.
Otherwise, I was reading the Comics Curmudgeon blog. The advertising server suggested a couple books. They came out as:
A book of Slylock Fox mystery puzzles.
A book of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith comics.
A book of Slylock Fox “brain bogglers” which are different from mystery puzzles in six ways and can you find them all?
A book titled A Do-It-Yourself Submachine Gun.
I have some snarky views about Tom Batiuk and, separately, the comic strip Luann. But I think a submachine gun is the wrong way to handle them. They should be handled in the traditional way of making YouTube videos in which the dialogue from the comics is read aloud by people who inflect the lines in the most uncharitable ways.
Still, I guess at least they made an advertising impression, which is a triumph in this day and age.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index was rising when someone came up from the basement and announced they’d found their copy of Ian Shoales’s Not Wet Yet and now everybody’s busy reading their favorite bits, like the essay about how Dracula is the perfect movie because it has stuff for guys (procedures, tools, men off to complete a task) and women (seedy romantic decadence, ancient mansions, food preparation). Also the essay on Elvitude.
Let me preface this by pointing out my mathematics blog, where yesterday I did another of those comic strip reviews. Last week saw more jokes about anthropomorphized numerals than usual, although in fairness, the usual is probably “one, at most”. So it doesn’t take all that many to be more than usual. Two is all you need. I hope you aren’t disappointed by this. It’s just how the numerals worked out.
Anyway. The recent Mark Trail story has finally ended. Mark escaped Explosion Island with his friends intact. All the invasive-species ants that made it to Explosion Island were burned alive by lava, except for the three pregnant queens Mark that snuck into Mark’s pants cuff and that have now set up in the Lost Forest. So it’s a good ending for everybody except for Explosion Island’s now-extinct varieties of hog, brightly-colored birds, and Polynesian Tortoise Or Whatever. Mark’s editor couldn’t believe that he managed to blow up Explosion Island, but that’s all right, because exploding islands make for interesting stories too. And then Saturday we got this:
I don’t want to understate the danger here, gang. Mark Trail is being all self-aware. The world is in serious danger of ending right here and now, in an explosion of lava and invasive ants. Please take whatever actions are appropriate to this sort of thing, whatever those are.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
Trading in the Another Blog, Meanwhile index reached as high as 108 before this whole Mark Trail Self-Awareness thing came to everyone’s attention. The index dropped briefly below 100 before traders started to rationalize how there’ve been moments in the past when the comic strip seemed self-aware or at least to be a little gently self-mocking. They rallied after that, so the day closed up two points, but everybody still feels a bit uneasy about it all. I don’t blame them.
Sunday has always been a problem for story comics. Sunday newspapers reliably sell more copies, and to a slightly different audience, than the Monday-to-Saturday papers. So how to tell a story when part of the audience gets one strip a week, another part misses one strip a week, and another part gets all seven strips a week? All the soap opera strips make Sundays a recapping of the previous week’s activities. It’s death to pacing; not much can happen on the weekdays so that it can all happen again on Sunday. Gil Thorp doesn’t run Sundays at all. Mark Trail runs a story-unrelated, informational, piece on Sundays. The other adventure strips … have other approaches. Here’s one.
The Amazing Spider-Man
I came to know The Amazing Spider-Man like many in my age cohort did, through the kids’ educational show The Electric Company. In segments on this Spidey battled delightfully absurd villains while staying mute. The show was about teaching reading skills; Spidey’s dialogue was sentences written in word balloons superimposed on the action. In keeping with the show’s tone the villains would be things like an ambulatory chunk of the Shea Stadium wall. Who beat Spidey, soundly. I’ve liked comic books, but somehow never got the bug to collect any normal books like Spider-Man or Superman or anything like that. (But I was the guy to collect the Marvel New Universe line, which, trust me, is a very funny sad thing of me to do.) So that formed my main impression of Spider-Man: a genial sort of superhero who nevertheless can’t outwit a wall.
(Yes yes yes the Wall was a little more complicated than a piece of baseball park wall just do we really need to argue this one? I put up a link to a YouTube copy of the sketch that I’m sure is perfectly legitimate.)
The newspaper Amazing Spider-Man comic strip started the 3rd of January, 1977. It’s credited to Stan Lee for the writing, with the daily strips pencilled by Larry Lieber and inked by Alex Saviuk. The Sunday strips are pencilled by Alex Saviuk and inked by Joe Sinnott, a division of labor that I trust makes sense to someone. The strip is its own little side continuity. It’s separate from, but influenced by, the mainstream Marvel universe. The result is some strange stuff because, even over the course of four decades, they haven’t had a lot of time to have stuff happen. Last year saw Spider-Man meeting Doctor Strange and the current Ant-Man for the first time. I don’t regularly follow Marvel Comics. But I imagine in them Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and Ant-Man spend so much time hanging out with each other they’re a bit sick of the company.
Story strips have a challenge in that the first panel has to give some hint where the story is. Amazing Spider-Man handles that like you’d expect. A lot of captions, which fits the 60s-comics origins of the character, and characters explaining the situation to each other. The problem of Sunday strips? Amazing Spider-Man just lets Sundays happen. The story progresses on Sunday at about the same speed it does the rest of the week. Monday strips often include a little more narrative incluing than, oh, Thursday’s would. But the comic trusts that if you miss the Sunday, fine, you can catch up. Or if you only see the Sundays, you can work out what probably went on during the week.
However much that is. A superhero-action comic has some advantages over, say, a soap opera strip. The soap has to clue in who’s who and why they’re tense about each other. A superhero comic can get away with tagging who’s the villain and letting characters punch each other. Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t do quite as much punching as you’d think. Well, all-action is boring too.
And a lot of what’s appealing about Spider-Man as a character is not the action. It’s that life keeps piddling on him. There’s something wonderful and noble in Peter Parker’s insistence on carrying on trying to save a city that doesn’t like him. So every story invites putting him through petty indignities of life. Another lot of what’s appealing about Spider-Man is that he’s not fully sure he wants to do this. He’d like to just skip it all, if he could. Or at least take a break. Who wouldn’t?
Thing is, the newspaper strip overdoes these. Maybe it’s hard to balance the comedy and self-doubts with the action. Maybe the strip has given in, at least partly, to its ironic or snarky readership. The occasional time I read a Marvel Universe comic book with Spider-Man he’s a bit of a sad sack, but not so much more than anyone with an exciting but underpaying job is. In the newspaper comic … well, it’s funny to have Spidey call up the Fantastic Four or the Avengers or Iron-Man for help on a problem that really does rate their assistance only to be told, ah, no, sorry, we’re helping someone move that day. It’s a good joke that he happened to pick the day that Iron-Man has to be out of the country. But there’s also something pathetic about it, especially when that isn’t the first time other superheroes ditch him on suspiciously vague pretexts.
It’s understandable that Peter Parker, freelance news photographer, would feel insecure about his job especially when Mary Jane Parker is a successful Broadway and minor movie actor. But with two or three panels a day to spend on character he can’t get into much depth. He comes across as whiny instead.
It’s reasonable that Peter Parker would get tired of what is, objectively, a pastime that’s physically and mentally brutal. Or that would be if the strip didn’t pull out a figure named Clown-9 who wants to be the … most hilarious … clown … that ever broke into a … Broadway show? It was a little weird. I liked that one more than many commenters I noticed did. But when I do read superhero comics, I like them broad and goofy in that Silver Age style. But how much emotional recuperation do you need from a guy whose menace is a more-powerful-than-usual water pistol, a duck-headed car, and a loud siren attached to his nose? You come out looking dopey.
Also, Spider-Man gets hit on the head. A lot. There’ve been multiple storylines in which he gets clonked by a brick. If it’s not a misplaced love of Krazy Kat then maybe it’s a riff on the attacking wall of Shea Stadium. It’s easier to understand Spidey’s tendency to nod off if you remember how many blunt head traumas he endures.
It’s all strangely loveable and ridiculous. Some of the characters are new. Some are minor villains of the real Marvel Universe. Some are curiously-poorly-synchronized references to the Marvel Cinematic Universe; last year they did a Doctor Strange storyline months ahead of that movie’s release. And an Ant Man storyline just after we all kind of forgot about his movie.
And that gets me to the current storyline. Remember Guardians of the Galaxy? Really wildly popular movie about three years ago? That’s finally drifted over to the comic strip, with Ronan the Accuser landing in the middle of Arizona Or Some Other Desert State just as Peter Parker and Mary Jane happen to be driving through. Fine enough. Ronan went harassing the patrons of a diner and tossed Peter Parker out the window. Just after that another spaceship, bearing Rocket Raccoon, landed.
I was delighted by that. A lot of the fun in the Spider-Man comic strip is people ragging on Spidey. And Rocket is just the kind of person to deliver no end of cracks about him. I wasn’t disappointed. They met in the traditional way of superheroes meeting one another for the first time, by fighting until they remembered they have no idea why they do that. Then they engaged in the tradition of teaming up to try finding the villain, who’s gone a couple weeks without appearing and might have escaped the comic altogether. We’ll see.
Overall, the strip is a bit goofy. I like goofy, especially in superhero stories. The newspaper Spider-Man has a couple motifs which are perhaps overdone: Peter Parker’s whininess, his strong desire to just go back to bed, everyone in the world insulting him every chance they get. The number of storylines in which Spider-Man’s participation isn’t really needed as the guest villain and guest hero keep everything under control. The oddly excessive white space between panels of the Sunday strips. I don’t care. The stories generally move at a fair pace. The villains are colorful or at least ridiculous. The heroics come around eventually. There’s a lot of silly little business along the way. I have fun reading it. I am so looking forward to when they get an appearance from Squirrel Girl.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The Another Blog, Meanwhile index starts the week up six sharp points owing to how surprisingly good the one-year-old Big Wheel cheese from the farmer’s market on the west side of town is. “Seriously,” one of the traders said under conditions of anonymity, “if we could eat nothing but this cheese we’d have lived our lives correctly”. It was Lisa.
With Judge Parker last week I’ve wrapped up all the syndicated story comics that have had major changes in the writing or art staff recently, by which I mean within like the last five years. But there are more story strips out there, and chatting with my Twitter friends suggest people find them baffling. Plus, what the heck, these pieces are popular.
I want to share a bit about a piece of art that did that most precious of things: make a lifelong (so far) change in my attitude about something. It wasn’t Gil Thorp. It was this high school comedy/drama called Ed. One episode Ed was trying to help a bright student get a scholarship, and needed just a slightly higher grade in gym. Surely his colleague would help him help out a bright kid who just didn’t care about phys ed, right? “Yeah,” said the coach, “because it’s not like I’m a real teacher or anything.” (Something like that, anyway.) It stung Ed, and it stung me, because the coach was right. I’d sneered at gym class, mostly because it seemed to be 86 weeks per year of Jumping Jacks Only More Boring and twelve minutes of things someone might actually do, like softball or volleyball or archery or stuff. And because even as a kid I had the dynamic physique of a medieval cathedral, only with tighter hamstrings.
But the coach was right. If school has a point it’s to make people familiar at least with all the major fields of human endeavor. And being able to be healthy and active is part of that. It’s as real and serious a subject as the mathematics or English or arts or science or music classes are. (In the episode, Ed came back humbled, and the gym teacher allowed the student to earn the “needed” grade by doing extra work.) And that’s stuck with me. I may not much care for sports, but that’s my taste. I should extend to it, and its enthusiasts, the same respect I give enthusiasts for other stuff I’m just not into.
Gil Thorp has not changed my attitudes on anything important nearly like that. The comic strip — which dates back to 1958 — has been written by Neal Rubin since 2004 Wikipedia tells me. It’s been drawn by Rod Whigham since 2008. So they’ve got the hang of what they want to do. There are other comic strips set in schools, such as Jef Mallet’s nearly joke-a-day Frazz and Tom Batiuk’s continuity-comedy-bathos Funky Winkerbean. But this is the only story strip that I guess gets into newspapers that’s set in high school. It’s also the only sports-themed story strip, and one of only a few remaining sports-themed comics at all. Why this should have survived and, say, Flash Gordon didn’t I don’t know, but what the heck.
Rubin and Whigham have a pretty clear idea what they want to do. Pretty much every season of the year has a story about the season’s appropriate sporting activity. One or two student-athletes, often new people but sometimes characters who were supporting players previous years, dominate the storyline. They go through some shenanigans trying to be students, or athletes, or teens. The important thing here is that they are teens, and even smart teenagers are kind of dumb. Eventually they’re dumb enough that Coach Gil Thorp has to call him in to their office and explain to them to knock it off, which they mostly do. On to the next season. Often the starts of one storyline reappear as supporting players in later storylines, for a year or two. This implies Rubin and Whigham keep careful continuity records so they know when each student entered the school, what they played, how they were doing, when they left and under what circumstances. I admire the craftsmanship involved.
Dumbness is important. The Gil Thorp kids don’t tend to be stupid in malicious or obnoxious ways. Just dumb in the way that people who aren’t used to thinking through the situation are. For example, a few storylines ago the problem was one of the athletes getting the idea in his head that ADHD medicine would help his performance. So he pressured one of the kids who has Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder to share his medicine. After resisting a while, the pressured student starts passing along … aspirins with the name filed off. The kid buys it. It’s the sort of thing that you do when you grow up thinking you’re in a sitcom filmed before a live studio audience and this is the sort of thing that makes the tense audience gasp and then applaud. When Thorp finally found out, he suspended both, on the correct grounds that they were being dumb. Well, that one was trying to get drugs off another student, and that student was passing him drugs, even if harmless ones.
That’s pretty much the way things go, though. There’s kids puttering along into mostly minor scrapes, as followed by updates in-between sporting events. There’s a developing crisis in which Gil Thorp is finally pulled into the storylines of his own strip to tell everyone to knock it off. And there’s the steady beat of how the team finishes the season in football (in the autumn), basketball (in the winter), softball (in the summer), and whatever sport catches Rubin’s fancy (in the summer). Sometimes it’s the boys’ team that gets the focus, sometimes the girls’. Sometimes the story involves trading off the focus. Now and then the teams get into the playoffs, or as the dialect of wherever the school is has it, “playdowns”, sometimes they fall short. They do well enough that nobody really calls for Thorp to resign. Perhaps they know that would end the comic. Or end their part in it, since he’d presumably go on to some other high school to sort of coach.
There will be surprises. 2016’s spring storyline grew to encompass all summer when one of the students was hit and killed in a messy, stupid car accident. Given the genially dopey nature of what had been going on before, a dose of actual blood was shocking. It scrambled my expectations. Good that I could have expectations and that they could break them in a credible way.
So, the current storyline. It’s about new basketball team star Aaron Aagard. He’s a solid player, a good student, charming in a weird way. At least he’s trying to be. I don’t know how you feel about 17-year-olds who make excuses to juggle. Anyway, that’s all on his good days. On his bad days he’s distracted, unconnected, and maybe falling asleep. Perhaps he’s just exhausted. He goes to raves, even on school nights, which is the sort of low-key scandalous behavior that fits the Gil Thorp worldview.
Maybe a bigger problem is some of his teammates overheard him talking about “taking Molly”. They believe that’s slang for ecstasy. Maybe it is. I don’t know. I’m what the hep kids call “a square”. So while I don’t know I’m willing to accept that any otherwise unaccounted-for word is slang for ecstasy. The kids think it over and after Aagard has a couple more unreliable days they pull the coach in. This seems early. The story only started the 12th of December. Maybe the story’s going to spin out in stranger ways. Maybe they want to start softball season early.
Aagard said if he could just have a few days he’d clear up this whole “taking Molly” thing. That’s again the sort of dumb thing you do if you think you’re living in a three-camera sitcom and setting up a big reveal that Molly is your generically-disabled niece or something. Thorp seems to have gone along with that, which is dumb. Unless Aagard explained stuff off-panel and clearing this up is about explaining it to his teammates. Which I expect, but could be wrong about.
Someone on, I think, the Comics Curmudgeon blog found there actually is a region of the United States where the high school sports postseason is called the “playdowns”. I forget what the region is. But, hey, I’ve been places where they label water fountains “bubblers”. I can take “playdowns”. It says something about Rubin’s determination to stick to a specific kind of craft that he’s holding on to the term “playdown”. Nobody would complain if they switched to “playoff” like everybody else says. People would stop making jokes about the comic’s little weirdness in saying “playdown”. Rubin’s decided the comic strip will be what it is, even if they’re made fun of for it. That’s an important thing to take out of high school too.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index dropped five points as traders reported a night of unsteady, broken sleep, constantly interrupted by thoughts of Donald Trump and the theme song to Vacation being stuck in their heads. The editorial staff extends their deepest condolences.
So now I’ve had some time to look over my WordPress statistics for December 2016 and I can share them with you.
It was a busier month in December than in November and I have to credit my string of explanations of what’s going on in the story strips for that. You think of the story strips as the part of the newspaper comics nobody reads, but the Internet is so vast that even nobody is a lot of people. That came out to 1,396 page views from 818 distinct visitors. That’s up from November’s 1,219 views from 708 visitors. It’s down from the October figures, though, of 1,507 views from 974 visitors. I have no explanation for all that.
The number of likes was 137, barely up from November’s 134, and down from October’s 160. There were only 20 comments, which seems like an undercount. But that is up from November’s 14. And down from October’s 32. September had 69; I’ve got to go back and figure what the heck went on there. I don’t know.
As I say, what really brought people in for December was talking about comics. I’m a little surprised since it isn’t hard to find comics snark out there. But maybe just catching people up on what they’ve missed is of reliable interest. We’ll know when I try to explain what the heck is with Gil Thorp anyway.
What Is Going On With Mark Trail? and I just realized I was inconsistent about using “What Is” or “What’s” for my story-strip explanation posts and don’t think that isn’t going to drive me crazy for the rest of my life. Augh.
Now for the ever-popular list of countries. There were 18 single-reader countries in December, down from 21. There were 42 countries listed altogether, down from 50. My readership in Singapore dropped 50 percent. C’mon, guys, I thought we were friends? Well, here goes.
Hong Kong SAR China
Trinidad & Tobago
United Arab Emirates
Colombia and Croatia were also single-reader countries last month. Nobody’s on a three-month single-reader streak. No sign of the mysterious “European Union” viewer.
The month started with my blog having 44,707 page views from 23,682 viewers. I didn’t keep track of how many people were following on January 1st and I’m feeling too lazy to work out how many added or dropped since then because guh who could? The Insights page … I’m not sure how to get the statistics for December alone. Right now it’s saying Tuesday was my most popular day, with 19 percent of views, a slight increase from November’s lead for Tuesdays. The most popular hour remains midnight, 8 percent of views, but that’s about what you’d expect if every hour of the day.
If you’d like to follow this blog, by WordPress or by e-mail, there’s buttons in the upper-right corner of the page to do that. They’re just underneath the search bar. My Twitter feed, @nebusj, is also sitting in the upper-right corner. Yes, I finally turned my vague and unfocused dissatisfaction with the “Truly Minimal” theme into actual switching to the “Twenty Sixteen” theme. This is because everybody loves when web sites just change their look. But I like what it does with comics images better. Oh, wait, it does different stuff based on how wide your web browser is. I didn’t know that. Well, it doesn’t seem to do anything bad yet. Will have to think about this more.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rushed upwards nine points, nearly making a first down, before being pushed back down three points by an aggressive ground game. Must admire the spunk on the opposing team, though. Good sportsmanship all around.
So back a couple weeks ago I talked about something from my undergraduate days when I was doing the humor page for my campus’s unread leftist weekly. I did a joke where I printed a crossword puzzle with entirely nonsense clues. And then the next week posted a note that because of an editing error the wrong clues were printed and here was the correct version, and then I reprinted the original clues and puzzle which no human could possibly have solved. And then the next week I printed a note saying the error had somehow been made again and here was the real and truly correct puzzle. And I reran the exact same set of nonsense clues with a puzzle. Because that is the sort of Dadaist nonsense that’s extremely funny when you’re a 21-year-old nerd.
And then just before Christmas the local alt-weekly put up this correction.
I’m not saying the Lansing, Michigan, free city paper necessarily swiped a gag that ran in the Rutgers College weekly that at least our parents were pretty sure they liked all the work we put into it back in the mid-90s and that’s been forgotten except by me and my then-Editor-in-Chief who desperately wanted to believe there was some kind of answer to the puzzle. I’m just observing this happened.
This all was plenty to delight me but then I looked at the solution to the mistaken crossword puzzle. I just wondered if they printed the solution for the correct puzzle or not. And they didn’t. They printed what would have been the solution for the wrong puzzle, except that all those answers were blank. Just like I noticed the week before that.
And whatever the mistake was they didn’t just reprint the solutions to their puzzles from the previous week. They had a different sudoku solution and so far as anyone has told me one that’s even right.
I want it clear, I’m not trying to shame or blame or insult anybody at the alt-weekly for this. I like the paper, especially when the local architecture critic goes nuts, and without it I’d never have any idea how many high-concept bars serving stuff smothered in duck fat were opening around town. I understand how everything’s done by too few people in not enough time and accidents slip through. I’m just delighted to see the aftermath is all.
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.
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.
That volcano that started exploding back in November? It’s finally destroyed the island and Our Heroes have escaped so I suppose that’s all a happy ending. Apart from like how they’re somewhere in the Pacific ocean right next to an active volcano that just destroyed their island. But there is this good news!
Unless, anyway, some of the invasive ants that were destroying the wildlife on this doomed island got aboard their boat and are going to get going wherever these three are rescued, anyway. Good times.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The Another Blog, Meanwhile index dropped nine points, which is getting more like everybody figured what with it being grey and rainy outside and the analysts getting into a fight over whether it should be ‘gray’ instead. And it wasn’t even a good fight. It was the kind of fight where two guys manage to hurt their backs by swinging too hard in the wrong direction and they have to go lie in bed the rest of the week, arguing over whether it should be ‘lay’. On their cell phones because getting up for a live in-person argument would hurt too much.
In getting back to trading after the Christmas break the Another Blog, Meanwhile dropped four points. This beat analyst expectations as they’d figured there was no reason they wouldn’t drop eight or even twelve points considering how poorly everyone does right after a big holiday. Really they’re amazed anyone could get themselves out on the trading floor, considering.
I confess: I’m doing a terrible job Christmas-shopping this year. Oh, the big item was easy enough. Just go down to the Christmas store and pick out one December 25th and arrange to have it delivered. I got the Sunday model this year. As a kid I was always torn between whether Sunday or Monday Christmases were the best. A Monday Christmas had the great fun of Advent being as short as it could be, plus, going right from the 4th Sunday of Advent services Sunday morning straight to Christmas Eve mass in the evening. But with a Sunday Christmas you get to burn the Advent candles for the whole fourth week. In hindsight I understand why everyone treated me that way in middle school.
But past arranging to have a Christmas it’s been a rough time thinking what to get people. I blame myself. I went through a stretch last decade where I gave everybody calendars all the time because, hey, who doesn’t need large pieces of paper with a grid of numbers on them? Sure, we all do. Page-a-day calendars are great because my father could get all way to January 17th before forgetting to look at the Far Side of the day. Month-by-month calendars are great because they don’t make any sense.
I mean, you maybe don’t remember what day it is, but put up a sheet of paper with up to 31 plausible candidates for the month and suddenly you’re able to keep it straight. If that doesn’t keep you up nights wondering how that screwed-up bit of psychology works maybe it will now. I’m assuming you aren’t one of those people that crosses off a date once it’s been used and if you are don’t tell me. It’ll force me to lead a rescue expedition for your calendars and I might grab your paperback books just to make sure you don’t crack their spines and I already have enough paperback books in the basement that it’s sunk two feet from where it started.
Despite calendars’ unquestionable properties as useful things that can be given I sensed I’d reached my lifetime limit for giving them. I got to hearing sharp jokes about them, and by jokes I mean sticks, and by hearing I mean “being jabbed in the belly”, and by “about them” I mean “from family members who are not going to start reading Rob Harrell’s Big Top no matter how much I’m sure they would like the January 22nd one”. Put that sentence back together and see if it doesn’t make sense. I’ll wait.
I can tell you what I want to give people. I just don’t know that it exists. But we saw the TV broadcast of the Silver Bells parade from last month. It was mostly like what being at the event was, except we weren’t being rained on while watching the rebroadcast. As the program went on you could see and hear more and more rain pouring down. The rain got to drowning out the news anchors trying to tell us which high school marching bad was doing Jingle Bell Rock [*]. I mean the sound of the rain, but then the rain got even more drown-y and they had everyone flee the parade. Thing is the last minutes of the broadcast —
Well. They left the camera running, but didn’t have any audio. They switched to playing something that wasn’t quite any identifiable Christmas carol. It was what you probably get when Santa puts you on hold. And through all this they showed people running desperately across the streets trying not to drown in the rain. After a couple minutes of that they gave up entirely and put a text crawl on-screen explaining that unfortunately severe weather forced the abandonment of the parade, but it was still a fantastic experience. The text crawl, the not-quite-music, the images come together to look like the tag scene where the war movie tells you how many of the battalion ever saw home again. And they’re looking forward to next year!
Anyway if they sell this on DVD I’m giving that to everybody I know, possibly every year for the rest of my life. I can do that now. Most of my family now lives in other states, well outside of stick range.
[*] Fewer than we expected but the parade did get cut short.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The Another Blog, Meanwhile index did not lose eight points over the course of the day. Instead it distributed eight points to some lucky readers. Could it be you? Check under your seat — not now, wait for it — and see if you have a point there. OK, now look!
So the strip officially declared that well of course Rex Morgan isn’t some nigh-immortal figure who’s barely aged a day since he set up shop sixty years ago. He just happens to have set up shop in the same town where another Rex Morgan used to work. It’s a wild coincidence two people of the same name would be in the same small town. But this sort of thing happens in real life, more than authors seem willing to embrace.
While I lack a comprehensive understanding of the Rex Morgan, M.D. canon, my suspicion is that this can’t actually make sense. I don’t imagine there are any points in the storyline where one could say that yes, there, the first Rex Morgan retired and a new one moved in. We just have take the new author’s word that there was some point the change happened.
I don’t know why Beatty bothered doing this. Yes, we joke about the unaging nature of comic strip characters. The strip even makes the joke. But I don’t think anyone even notices it outside the jokes. There are only a few comic strips that try to age the characters in something like real time. Most of those are humor strips that aren’t committed to ongoing storylines, not ones that go more than a week at a time on average.
After all, not much time passes in a comic. Two or three panels convey only a few seconds of life. To tell enough of a story to be coherent even a story strip can cover, like, maybe a month’s worth of events in a calendar year. I think most readers are fine with the characters being in a rolling present, with anything from previous stories part of the indeterminate “couple months ago” or “couple years ago”. After all, if the real-world 1998 feels to you like it was maybe six years ago, June Morgan’s pregnancy can’t feel like it went on too long.
Maybe it’s just as the bottom row says: Beatty declaring this isn’t your grandpa’s Rex Morgan. Maybe it is just making a mission statement of relevance. That I shy away from declarations like that doesn’t mean other people do, or should. But it still seems like taunting the hardcore Rex Morgan, M.D. continuity enthusiast community to try.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index dropped ten points during trading today but everybody is trying to focus on the four points it picked up on the way out, when analysis noticed there were some they’d never taken out of their pockets from before. That’s fine so far as it goes but I hear the people worrying about what this portends for future trading. Whenever the newspaper summaries get to talk about portents watch out, it’s a bear market. Watch out and short whatever you got.
I know the crossword puzzle editor for our local alt-weekly likes being playful and playing thematic games. You know, like making the clues off in some amusing way, or making the answers be the right answers only modified by some gimmick. And then there was last week’s puzzle which went for a full-on statement of the hopelessness of it all. This is why I top out at staring at Jumble a while and then declaring I could solve that easily if I wanted to.
Also apparently there’s a French Playtime group going on when I wasn’t looking. This is what I get for only looking at the community events after they’ve already passed: I have a ready-made excuse not to have to do anything.
In less hopeless tasks, here’s last week’s mathematics comics. Yes, Barney Google is among them, though Barney Google himself doesn’t appear. He hasn’t been in his own comic strip in literally weeks now. Really, he’s getting to be a bit of a bother popping in so often these days.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
While the index rose by four points traders are taking no cheer in this news because they remember way back when there was that big runup to over 150 points and now any bit of good news is taken as a warning that bad news is going to come and it’s just going to make it all the worse when it does. 2016 has really been a heck of a year, hasn’t it?