I’m happy to have another recap of one of the two most controversial comics in my retinue. It’s Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker. If you’re reading this after about October 2019 there’s probably a more up-to-date recap at this link. It may help you more.
Alan Parker’s press conference shakes everyone in the cast. Including Norton, being held in SuperHyperUltraDuper secret CIA jail. The bureau chief there scolds him for not cooperating, now that Norton’s wrecked everybody’s life and hasn’t got any friends left. Norton insists he knows what he’ll do about all this.
April Bowers Parker, off with her superspy mom Candice Bergen, now knows that Norton is alive. She says she’s got a mole in the CIA, passing information to her. And even delivering a gift to Alan Parker, closing the “how did Norton leave Alan Parker some rings” plot hole from a couple months back. It’s not fair to call it a plot hole. It was a mystery then and it’s answered now. This may be so Marciuliano can prove he doesn’t write by spinning a Wheel of Daft Plot Twists. Candace Bergen calls it a setup, and proof that the CIA has located them.
In their argument about whether Norton could be alive, and whether April’s plan to retrieve him is at all sane, Candice Bergen gets shown with her mouth open. This spoils my theory that she was drawn mouth closed for the subtle weirdness. Too bad.
In Los Angeles, Neddy and Ronnie talk over making the April Parker story into a movie. Neddy thinks it’s a great idea. Ronnie thinks they maybe shouldn’t stir up the crazy DoubleSecretSuperUltraHyper assassin who knows where they live and can’t be stopped by any force except Francesco Marciuliano. If him. This thread hasn’t developed yet. I include it in case this turns into an important plot for a future What’s Going On In installment.
Back Alan Parker. The court denies bail. The judge conceded Alan Parker’s long and venerable career of not actually doing much law stuff on-screen in the comic strip named after him. But he’s there because he used his connections to make an arms dealer and serial killer disappear. It would be crazy not to consider him a flight risk. Alan Parker takes this calmly. Katherine is more upset. Sam Driver is sure they can appeal this somewhere.
And there we go. The 24th of June, 2019, Alan Parker, original nominal star of the comic, is in prison. He has as jolly a time as you would imagine an officer of the court would have. Fortunately, he lands a protector. It’s Roy Rodgers, longtime fiancée and briefly husband to Abbey Driver’s housekeeper Marie. Roy thinks they each have things the other can use. Alan Parker just wants to keep his head down, and Roy tells him that’s impossible.
Roy was in debt to the mob, which was the reason behind his ill-planned disappearance during his honeymoon. He’d bought his life back by giving up the security codes for his business partner’s safe and information about where to find his valuables are. This is morally justified because it was Roy’s partner who was embezzling, and had left them in too deep to the mob for Roy to pay off. The mob staged a burglary that “accidentally” turned into murder. Roy actually believes he’s safe now. So let’s let him enjoy his fantasies.
Roy believes that he has a group now. So he’ll extend protection to Alan Parker … in exchange for information about Marie. Marie has been doing surprisingly, maybe alarmingly, well since the collapse of her marriage and her decision to leave the Parker-Driver-Spencer nexus. She’s even got a new boyfriend that somehow she’s not suspicious of. But Alan Parker knows nothing of this.
In a meeting with Sam Driver, Alan Parker confesses. He had not realized the deep sickness of the carceral state, and how toxic it is to everyone who touches it, or whom it chooses to grab. Also he begs Sam Driver to never under any circumstance tell him anything about Marie. … Also, Roy wants Sam Driver as attorney and Alan would recommend against that.
Meanwhile, Randy Parker, ex(?)-husband to April, turns up at Sam and Abbey’s doorstep. He’s falling apart, as you might well imagine. He’ll nest at the Spencer Farms a while.
More meanwhile — there’s a lot of stuff happening here — there’s more stuff happening with Norton. Of course. April Parker, with Wurst, heads in to get Norton. He’s already disappeared from SuperSecretHyperUltraDuperMax CIA Jail, though. Also we learn he wasn’t in Official SuperExtraSecretUltraDuperMegaMaxHyper CIA Jail either. The bureau chief was keeping him in a private cell, known only to himself, his assistant Kerring, and Agent Strand. Strand is the person who’d been sending information to April Parker. And keeping the CIA’s efforts to find April from succeeding. Strand and Norton are taking a road trip.
So, that’s a lot happening. The pieces seem this week to be flying together. And we at least have solid evidence that Marciuliano is not improvising these plots madly. There’s too many pieces that were planted fairly and followed up on months later for that. I admit I’m tired of the impossibly hypercompetent, impossibly hyperviolet spies. But that’s my taste, and which of us is the person with an occasionally tended WordPress blog anyway?
The good news is this clears Marie of the suspicion of murdering her husband. She and Sam Driver fly back home to Cavelton. While she’s legally unencumbered, this has wrecked her life. She felt herself defined by her relationship to the Parkers for years, then to her boyfriend-fiancee-husband, and now … what? Mostly she wants everyone to stop trying to comfort her. Except maybe Sophie, who went through her and her band being kidnapped by her mother’s previously-unsuspected evil half-sister. They’re starting to bond over having such identity-shattering experiences. Then her husband calls.
Roy begs her to see him. She can’t think of any reason she would. She gets a lot of pressure to hear him out, though. From characters in the strip. Also from comics commentators. I saw a fair number of readers who thought Marie was being terrible, not to mention hypocritical. When Roy went missing got was suspected of murder, vaguely by authorities, certainly in public opinion. And she was wholly innocent. Now she won’t extend to Roy the same benefit of the doubt?
Me, I don’t think ill of Marie for not wanting to hear Roy’s line. She’s correct to feel betrayed by Roy. He literally disappeared on their honeymoon. He faked his death in ways that made her the obvious suspect. The scandal made headlines on two continents. He’d kept secret for years his company failing. And she’s had at most a couple days to deal with learning all this. It would be admirable if she were open, already, to hearing his sad story.
And she does stop to hear his story. Well, she goes to look at him in person and confirm that she’s done and moving on. But he pleads his case fast, and she listens. The company was failing. They needed ready cash. He borrowed money from the mob. His partner — the one who’s turned State’s Evidence — was stealing from the company. He figured he had to leave. He thought he could leave with Marie. He saw one of the mobsters while on their honeymoon. An expensive honeymoon, it’s pointed out, considering money was his problem. He thought he had to flee, even if he didn’t have any idea what to do after running.
It’s stupid, yes. But it’s stupid in a way I believe of people. I don’t think I’m misanthropic, not mostly. But I do figure most of us form our idea of how to plan out the world when we’re about eight, and think that other people will obviously go along with us. At worst we’ll have to trick them like we’re Bugs Bunny and they’re Daffy Duck. And that this never works doesn’t really stop us. We just accept that plans never work out but we don’t know how to have better ones.
Anyway, what Roy wants to say: the mob still wants their money, or at least their revenge, and, well, she’s an available target. So, I’m not sure what a good plan in this situation would be. I know he didn’t have one.
Does Marie have one? She was already thinking she needed to leave the Spencer-Driver world before she talked to Roy. Now she also knows she’s probably in danger for her life. Sam Driver claims he knows people who could help and set her up in a safe hiding spot. Marie thinks about it, and then decides against it. Going into hiding would be a surrender of her life. Going into hiding under Sam Driver’s protection would be surrendering her independence. She has to set out wholly on her own.
Here again I can understand her thinking. I think it’s foolish to refuse the eagerly offered protection of a family that’s not just rich, it’s soap opera wealthy rich. I mean, that’s a class of people who can just turn out to have a home in Newport, Rhode Island, that they didn’t think worth mentioning anytime the past 35 years. Granted money can’t fix broken personalities, but it can do a lot in supporting the flesh the personality depends on.
Well, I’ve had lesser problems than Marie has. The week of the 8th of April she moves into her new apartment. We then get views of the other characters. Roy getting into fights with the inmates at Cavelton Prison. Neddy and Ronnie trying to make a go of Los Angeles again.
And, oh lord, but April Parker is back in the story. We see her, with her Mom. April left with her mother, whose name I haven’t caught. I’m going with Candice Bergen in the meanwhile. Candice Bergen has been training April in the ways of being a somehow even more super-hyper-ultra-duper secret agent for hire. April’s determined to rescue Norton, her father, from his Super Mega Hyper Duper Extra Special Secret Agent Jail. Candice Bergen insists Norton is dead. April doesn’t believe it. She knows anything about soap operas.
(And this is not at all relevant to Judge Parker. But. I caught an advertisement for The Young and the Restless this past week. It started with how, on [ date ] three years ago, [ character ] died, and showed the footage of the building fire. And then, coming this week … and they showed someone declaring “[ character ] is alive”. It was such a wonderful pure moment of what soap operas are for. I kind of regret knowing nothing about The Young and the Restless so I can’t truly appreciate [ character ] not having died in [ incident ]. And how cleverly he [ whatever he did to be not dead ].)
And that leads to the current events. The 27th of April established that Toni Bowen’s memoir was ready for publication. Among the things this Cavelton-to-national-to-Cavelton reporter reveals many things. The biggest is that Judge Alan Parker helped arms-dealer and generally-exhaustingly-bad-guy Norton fake his own death. And worse, it’s all true. Katherine Parker quits her job with the memoir publisher, and realizes that’s what her boss really wanted. I’m not clear why he did want her to quit, but it does explain why he’s involved her in the publication of a book with scandalous news about her husband.
Still, she has the PDF proofs for the memoir. And Judge (retired) Alan Parker has to confirm that yeah, it’s correct, and it’s awful. All he can think to do is go public with the news first. The goal is to convince the public that he was trying to protect his son and daughter-in-law. That daughter-in-law is April Parker. She’s a rogue, disgraced CIA agent who broke out of Mega Ultra Duper Secret Spy Jail and is roaming the world looking for people to kill for money. He calls Sam Driver for advice.
Sam’s direct about this. Alan just confessed a crime to him. There’s little to mitigate this. Norton had not threatened Alan or his family when he asked for help faking his death. Alan felt threatened, he says now, and that maybe helps. And yeah, Norton did end up holding Alan hostage and drugging him and bringing crazy and violent people into his life. I know, it’s so weird that inviting CIA people into a life results in physical harm, mental torment, and widespread misery. But there you have it. But all that came later, after the faked death certificate. Sam can’t see a way out of this which doesn’t involve Judge Alan Parker — the original center of this longrunning story comic — going to prison.
So will he? I don’t know. I could imagine circumstances where he doesn’t. He’d — I infer — helped Norton fake his death right after Romanian mobsters launched armed raid on his son’s wedding reception. He could (honestly!) claim he was trying to save a family member from future armed raids. And, well, he is rich and white and was on the bench for decades. I can easily imagine the district attorney going light on him.
But I can also imagine Marciuliano deciding not to. He’s been happy to put characters through the ringer before. He’s had Sophie Driver kidnapped and tortured for months. He’s made Abbey Driver’s father a bigamist with a secret second family. He made Godiva Danube a celebrity drug smuggler before killing her. And he is, really, simply following up the implications that were already in the strip when he took over writing. I think he’s bold enough to do it. I don’t know whether he would. It’s exciting that it’s plausible, though.
I feel the need to break my format a little. There’s a major question in the backstory of the current Judge Parker plot. That current storyline doesn’t actually depend on parts of the plot not previously revealed. But Francesco Marciuliano writes the story as though we should remember the circumstances of Norton’s faked death. At least he writes the characters as though they know it. So let me reveal what we do know about this.
What Exactly Is The Deal With Judge Alan Parker Faking Norton’s Death?
To be honest, this has been annoying me a long while too. And I didn’t think I could untangle it, especially not now that Comics Kingdom redesigned their archives so it’s harder to read old strips. I was saved by this essay by Mark Carlson-Ghost. It lays out the characters of Judge Parker in some depth. I’m impressed by his diligence. The essay includes people not seen since the 1960s, according to itself. Without it I’d have no hope of tracking down enough story to explain any of this.
The story goes back several years and to the previous writer, Woody Wilson. The artist, Mike Manley, was the same, so at least the art will be familiar. In the backstory to this backstory, Alan Parker had retired as judge and occasional comic strip character. He’d written some of his experiences into a novel, The Chambers Affair, which everybody in the world loves. People fall over themselves to talk about how much they love it. And Randy Parker has found love in the form of April Bowers. She’s a CIA “asset” who claims to be a single linguist, but who keeps having stuff pull her away from linguistics. They were readying to marry.
So first, his name was not Norton, which may be why I have always had trouble figuring out what his last name is. He’s presently “Norton Dumont” by the way. On his introduction he was known as “Abbott Bower”. At least, until the wedding of Randy Parker and April Bower, a sequence which ran from February through June 2014.
The wedding was also the occasion for Abbott Bower to meet the Parkers and their gang. They had come to the jungles of Mexico because, Abbott was unable to travel away from his clinic. He was dying from radiation exposure, the result of some CIA mission he’d been on. This was by the way presented as of course true by the strip’s then-writer Woody Wilson. Current writer Francesco Marciuliano is eager to indulge in every soap-operatic plot twist. So I accept that Wilson intended that this was an old CIA agent turned gun runner who was dying of exposure to patriotism. (Seriously, the strips from this era lay on really thick the “thank God we have super-spies ready to Save America” bunk.)
Over the wedding, Abbott gives to April a bag full of diamonds. His “retirement fund”, he quips, now a wedding gift. The evening of the reception, Flaco and Franco Gardia launch a bungled raid on the wedding party. The Gardias have the idea the diamonds are theirs. And that April killed Flaco’s wife. I don’t deign to declare whether the Gardias or Abbott have the greater title to the diamonds. But Flaco’s wife is in a Mexican prison, thanks to Abbott’s work.
I don’t mind that the raid is a fiasco. My reading of this sort of thing is that pretty much every attempt at armed force is largely a fiasco. Afterwards the winners organize a narrative that makes it, sure, a close call at points but ultimately inevitable. But part of the last few years of Wilson’s writing was that anything bad that might happen to a Parker or Spencer or Driver would fall apart of its own accord. In the raid it turns out April is one of those movie-style super-spies who can grab someone’s surveillance drone out of the sky. Katherine gets captured, but stays pretty in control of the situation. She even talks to one of the Gardia brothers about surrendering to her, and he at least hears her out.
After a tense standoff with mutual groups of hostages they compromise. The Gardias will take half the diamonds. Oh, also Alan Parker’s autograph on their copies of his best-selling novel The Chambers Affair. And then they’ll leave the strip forever. And they do. This sort of convenient working-out of things happened all the time in the Woody Wilson era. Especially with people so loving Alan Parker’s book. It’s a great running joke if you don’t suspect that Woody Wilson meant it sincerely. At the time, I thought he meant it sincerely. In retrospect, and on reading a lot of these strips in short order, I’m less sure. It reads, now, to me more like a repeated punch line.
After the wedding various other plots go on. In October 2015 it’s revealed that Abbott has left the Mexican clinic. He’s returned to the United States. He’s helping Alan Parker write the screenplay for The Chambers Affair. And that his name is now Norton Dumont.
And finally, months later, the money shot. Or as near a one as we get. It’s in December 2017. Alan Parker declares how “Abbott Bower died of cancer in Mexico. There’s even a death certificate!”
As best I can tell this is as much as the strip laid out the circumstances of Norton’s previous faked death. It is quite possible that I have missed some strip between June 2014 and December 2015 that made it more explicit. But what I infer is that Abbott Bower got himself declared dead, the better to escape people like the Gardias who might hold his life against him. The extent to which Alan Parker helped in this was, as best I can find, unstated at the time. It transpires only now, as Francesco Marciuliano writes what “really” went on.
What was happening last time I checked in on Judge Parker? An exhausting set of plot twists. The most salient was Neddy Spencer being back home. She’s nursing her emotional wounds after witnessing, among other things, April Parker murdering the CIA agent who killed — oh, it’s a lot of blood. Sam Driver was getting snotty about Neddy retreating for shelter, but I’m on Neddy’s side in this. Sophie Spencer scolded Neddy about her shunning Ronnie Huerta. Huerta had backed off from Neddy after witnessing altogether too many murders, but was trying to reach out again.
Neddy tries to call … Marie, the Spencers’ old reliable … housekeeper? I think? I wasn’t sure about her position and the strip only talked about her being on vacation. Marciuliano is sometimes too scrupulous about characters not explaining things they should know to one other. No character, for example, ever says what country Marie is vacationing in, or what island she’s on. This even though her vacation becomes a plot.
Well, Wikipedia says she works as their maid. All right. Anyway, Marie’s off on vacation. More than that: she’s eloped with her boyfriend-of-eight-years, Roy Rodgers. Well, the shock that Marie has her own happiness gives Neddy reason to call Ronnie Huerta again. And to apologize. After Christmas, Neddy plans to set back out to Los Angeles, to pick up whatever she figures her career there to be. A family crisis not of her making postpones this.
There’s some unsettling stuff. One of the Christmas presents Alan Parker finds is from Norton. It’s wedding bands and a note about how he knew Alan and Katherine would reconcile. Norton’s supposed to be dead. Sam Driver swears he’s dead. Driver’s seen pictures. He’s got this from “multiple contacts”. Norton must have snuck it in sometime before he went into Super Hyper Ultra CIA Duper Jail. Norton’s alive, of course, but the CIA is passing the story that he’s dead. Katherine avows how much she hates the Norton subplot, and Alan agrees.
All that was cleared up by the 29th of December. This is when the current plot got underway. (Huh; that’s almost the same day the airplane adventure got under way over in Rex Morgan, M.D..) Marie calls the Spencers, crying. Her husband’s missing. He had left that morning, promising a “surprise”. His clothes were found on the beach and nothing else. Sam Driver flies to whatever island it is exactly that Marie and Roy were honeymooning on. It must be in Greece. The 16th of January’s strip shows the logo of the Hellenic Police. And the story of a man gone missing on his honeymoon turns into one of those exciting missing-person media frenzies that we used to have. You know. Back in the before-times. When there was time to think about anything besides the future Disgraced Former President.
While he’s on the plane there’s time for still more Norton-related chaos. Katherine Parker works for the company publishing Toni Bowen’s memoir. The draft of it contains the (correct) bombshell that, at one point, Alan Parker helped Norton fake his own death. Randy Parker had mentioned this to her while these two were dating. Katherine wants to suppress the story. Alan thinks the least bad thing to do is nothing. Let it come out and take his lumps. Randy curses himself for his foolishness but I don’t think recommends any particular action. Alan points out that Norton is dead, and Katherine points out, this is a soap strip. More, it’s one Francesco Marciuliano is writing. Nobody’s dead until you’ve incinerated their dismembered corpse. And even then we’re somehow not done with Norton.
Back to Greece. Sam Driver wants to know how this missing-groom story hit the global news wires before it even hit the local media. He’s promised an answer at Commissioner Christou’s press conference. Rodgers disappeared the 30th of December. They think he either drowned or met with foul play. They believe Marie Rodgers was the last person to see him alive. She hasn’t answered any questions since Driver showed up to serve as legal adviser.
Driver goes to Christou after the conference, which didn’t answer his question. At least not on-panel. Christou has the good news that Marie is being released from custody but is not to leave the island. It’s a baffling development. The next morning, Christou calls Driver. They’ve found Rodgers. He was arrested in a bar in Madeira. It’s an impressive distance to swim from Greece, considering.
Driver has a hypothesis. It’s pretty bonkers, so it makes for a good soap opera story. Maybe it’s based on some real incident. I don’t tend to follow true-crime/missing-persons stories, so what would I know? The idea, though: Rodgers wanted to fake his death and start a new life. Driver thinks Christou saw through that, though. And made Rodgers’s presumed death as big a story as he could. This to fool Rodgers into thinking he had faked his own death, meanwhile letting every cop in the TV audience know what he looked like. That this gave Marie a public reputation of being Probably A Murderer was a side effect, regrettable but worth it for the sake of Justice.
And the hypothesis seems to hold up. Back home in Cavelton, Toni Bowen reports on the collapse of Rodgers’ home-repair company. They’ve lost a lot of contracts the last several years. Rodgers himself is under suspicion of stealing one and a half million dollars from the failing company. And Katherine Parker “reaches a breaking point” with Bowen’s reporting about her family and family’s close friends. She figures to return the favor. That’s sure to be a very good idea that works out well and leaves her happy. By the next time I recap Judge Parker’s plot — probably around May 2019 — I’m sure we’ll see how much better this has made everybody’s lives. Can’t wait.
Last time I checked in on Judge Parker I figured we were getting near some retrenchment. There had been a bunch of craziness going down, mostly in Los Angeles. Neddy Spencer and work-friend Ronnie Huerta were trying to figure who killed Godiva Danube. They learned Danube had been fronting a drug-running scheme. And that someone in the CIA wanted Danube dead, so they got April Spencer to do it. Except, we learned, she didn’t do it. Someone else, who’s now killed Danube’s boyfriend, the guy who gave Neddy Spencer and Ronnie Huerta as much exposition as they have. Meanwhile, April Parker’s father Norton was betrayed by his aide and was in the hands of maybe a dozen CIA agents. I know this is confusing; I’m trying to summarize a summary here. My summary article last time has the space to explain more of it. Anyway, I figured we were coming near some drawing down of the craziness. Possibly a jump several months ahead in time. An incomplete resolution of what’s been going on and a bunch of new story elements. Let’s see what happened.
Well, Neddy and Ronnie get out of Danube’s boyfriend’s apartment. April Spencer’s dropped in to kill the CIA agent who was killing the boyfriend anyway. Ronnie declares she’s had enough of Neddy’s crazy life and wants out. Can’t fault her that. Also it turns out Norton is not dead, but just in Super-Duper-Secret CIA Jail, being interrogated about what’s April Spencer’s deal already.
Meanwhile back in Cavelton, Judge Randy Parker calls off a date with Toni Bowen. She’s the local-turned-national-turned-local-again newscaster. Her life’s been tied to the Parkers’ since Marciuliano took over writing. Randy uses the excuse that he’s swamped with judge work. She pretends to believe him, and further, agrees to babysit his-and-April’s daughter Charlotte for the night. Randy picked such a lucky night to be absent I wondered if he was up to something. Because April Parker stops in. April demands Charlotte. Bowen refuses to give her up. Randy Parker finally gets home in time for this scene, and for April to knock him unconscious for dating in her absence. And then who intrudes but … Candice Bergen?
So, turns out she’s April Parker’s Mom. She’s been absent something like thirty years with her business and all. And it turns out she’s the partner Wurst was reporting to last time. Candice Bergen warns that no, April can’t take Charlotte. She’ll have to wait and come back to her sometime later. Maybe after the new series of Murphy Brown wraps up. On Candice Bergen’s promise of safety, Bowen lets April hug Charlotte, for maybe “the last time she can hold her as a child”. And then they leave before they can kill even more CIA agents.
Maybe. We don’t see that. The 15th of October had the much-anticipated-by-me “We Jump To Mid-Fall” narrative caption. The changes: Bowen’s had enough of the Parker craziness and is done with Randy. Can’t fault her that. Katherine and Alan Parker have gotten back together. They’re at that stage where every floor in their house is filled with boxes labelled for some other room. Norton is dead, according to Sam Driver’s Super-Ultra-Secret contact at the CIA. So they’re all safe, right?
And Katherine Parker learns something interesting at the publishing house where she works. Also I learn she works at a publishing house. Toni Bowen’s publishing an autobiography and it’s going to have a bunch of stuff about Randy and April. She brings word to Alan. Alan brings word to Randy. Randy already knew. Bowen had talked about it with him before submitting the book proposal. So he roughly knew what would get published and what it might do to him. Also, Randy has to admit he would never do anything to hurt his father but …
So Randy confided to Bowen how Alan Parker had helped Norton fake his own death some time ago. Randy meant this to show that Norton wouldn’t be coming after them. Now, well, they don’t know if it’ll be in the book but it’s going to be an awkward conversation. Still, at least Norton’s not faking his death this time. Super-Hyper-Duper-Secret CIA Prison is.
And there might be fresh deaths. In Super-Mega-Hyper-Ultra-Duper-Secret CIA Prison the bureau chief has bad news. April Parker is dead. They have a photo and everything. Norton’s willing to pretend to believe them long enough to look at their photo. And he thinks how “April may be in even better hands than mine”. The phrasing reads as though he’s considering that April has died, but is still way open to reading as though he’s admiring his wife’s work in the field of Honestly Just Exhausting At This Point Super-Hyper-Ultra-Duper-Mega-Looper-Secret Double-Crossing. The agents reviewing his reaction figure Norton “may not know where April is, but certainly knows who helped her get out”.
The 18th of November introduced another plot thread. Neddy Spencer’s flying home for Thanksgiving. And ignoring Ronnie Huerta’s repeated texts to call back. Neddy’s life has been a mess since we saw it turn into an enormous mess. Huerta’s trying to reconnect, but Neddy won’t have it, suspecting Huerta of being the same kind of false friend Danube was. Sophie Spencer points out, correctly, that withdrawing from the craziness is not wrong. After major drama — the word seems trivial for what they went through, but what is there to say? — you may need time away. Neddy’s the bad friend, ignoring the attempts to reach out and assuming malice. I get Neddy’s anger, but that’s still a good way to create malice.
Meanwhile Sam Driver isn’t sure Neddy should move back home. He thinks she responds to every setback by running back home, and that she shouldn’t be doing that now. Which has enough truth in it to be credible. But, especially since Marciuliano took over, Neddy hasn’t been through “setbacks”. She’s seen family twist someone by their neck until they’re dead. I’m not sure what she does need, except that it involves professional care. So this is probably something that will get further discussion. Maybe a jolly fight over Christmas. We’ll see.
Well, The Amazing Spider-Manjumped the queue a bit. So I’ll get back on schedule with a recap of Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop repeats. Which looks like it’s just wrapped up the story, a month ahead of my expectations. I don’t know what they’re going to do while waiting for the new writing team to take over. Should catch up to Prehistoric Moo in a week, though. And by Prehistoric Moo I mean 1816 Switzerland. You know how it is.
Interested in catching up on Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker? Enough to tolerate being put back a week for fast-breaking Alley Oop news? Not enough to wait for news about what’s happening to Henry? Then you’re in a correct enough spot.
Plots keep moving. If you’re reading this after about December 2018, I’ll probably have written another recap. And that’ll get the strip closer to whenever you’re reading this. That essay, when it exists, should be here. Where the essay is when it doesn’t exist is a problem I’m not competent to answer.
I have noticed a certain strange rhythm to Francesco Marciuliano’s Judge Parker plotting. There’ll be a crazification stage, where all sorts of big, Days Of The Week style explosion messes up everybody’s status quo. Characters run around, often yelling at each other, often through pop-culture terminologies. They act like they would in a movie about the events. Then there’s a retrenchment. It reads like Marciuliano has let the soap-opera craziness grow enough, and then stopped to think. Allow the crazypants thing to have happened. How would responsible authorities and reasonable grown-ups, the people whose task in life is to make things boring, handle it? (This is not to say boring is bad. The point of society is that people can be bored. They should be able to live without an endless fight for shelter and food and warmth and affection and stimulation. They should be able to take stuff for granted.) Some common sense comes in, and some of the plotting that makes sense for a soap opera but not for real life melts away. The story becomes a bit less preposterous, and the characters get a little breathing room. Sometimes there’s a flash-forward a couple months. And then it’s time for a fresh explosion.
Godiva Danube is dead, killed in time to mess up my previous plot recap. Shot in a hotel room. Neddy Spencer is shocked. She’d had a big and public fight with Danube days before. Prominent enough that the police ask about it. Besides the fight at the restaurant there is how they were partners in that clothing business swallowed up by a sinkhole. And local-tv-news footage of Spencer yelling she’d get even with Danube for throwing her under the bus. That Danube had asked Spencer to be her assistant before moving to Los Angeles, and Spencer refused, and then moved to Los Angeles anyway. That Spencer was alone the night Danube got shot.
This gets Neddy Spencer freaking not. I mean, it’s crazy to imagine the United States justice system convicting an innocent but available person. But crazy things happen in soap operas. Anyway, Neddy’s work-friend Ronnie Huerta has other suspicions. The police interrogated her about whether she knew of Spencer using or dealing drugs. Huerta’s also used the Google and realized Danube’s talk about movies she’s making was nonsense. Why would Danube want an assistant for a fake movie shoot? Why is the press asking the police department about rumors of CIA cooperation on the hotel murder of a minor actor? What if Danube was drug-trafficking? And needed some warm bodies?
Spencer and Huerta do the one thing you do, when you’re plausibly the suspect for a murder. They go trying to solve it themselves. At least investigate it. I don’t read cozy-mysteries often. Too much to do. But if someone out there knows of a cozy-mystery where the protagonist, having taken time away from her job as a part-time book reviewer for the Twee County News to solve the murder, gets yelled at by the sheriff for screwing up an investigation that otherwise was going fine and actually obeying rules of admissible evidence and all that, please let me know. I can dedicate a weekend to reading that.
Anyway, they follow their two leads. One is Sam Driver, who’s way off back in the strip’s original headquarters of Cavelton. They ask if he knows anything about Godiva Danube running drugs or anything suspicious like that? He gets back to them while they’re talking with their other lead, Danube’s boyfriend, Steve Clarke. They went to his apartment figuring, well, they don’t have any leverage and don’t know anything. But what the heck. They’re attractive women. He’s a guy. He might blurt something out. It goes well: in bare moments they’ve knocked out his roommate and have him in a hammerlock. He explains what he knows: nothing. But the cops wanted to know everything, so all he could offer was that he knew Neddy Spencer’s name. And that was all he knew, at least until they broke into his apartment “and made a plausible connection between the two of us”. Which is a moment of retrenchment. This is one of the reasons it’s stupid to go investigating the crime you’re suspected of.
Oh, also, Clarke knows that Danube was shipping drugs around. She’d fled a fading Hollywood career and the factory collapse by making low-budget Eastern European lousy movies. Her studio was a front for a drug cartel. Danube’s boyfriend-producer was also sleeping with other women. She ran off with a big chunk of his shipment. But the East European cartel wouldn’t have shot her, not in the United States: it would cross territorial lines and open a turf war they want. But other than that, he doesn’t know anything. (This is sounding like the informer scene in an episode of Police Squad, I admit. Maybe Angie Tribeca.)
As they’re getting this exposition Sam Driver calls back. He’s got news. The CIA figures Danube’s boyfriend is the head of an Eastern European drug cartel. One who gives the CIA information, and takes payment in favors. He wanted Danube dead as a new favor. The CIA’s happy to arrange this because they figured they could someone specific to kill Danube. And then capture the murderer. That would be April Spencer.
Who’s the other party who was freaking out at Danube’s death. And the other major plot thread going crazy here. She was there to kill Danube. She found Danube already dead. She and her father learn Danube had changed hotels for no obvious reason. And checked in under the name “Renee Bell”, one of April’s old fake identities. April’s father Norton goes crazy trying to get in touch with Wurst, their reliable big strong guy with a beard and tie.
It takes a couple months, reader time, to find why Wurst isn’t returning Norton’s calls. He’s in some posh Austrian manor house, where Danube’s ex-boyfriend/producer has kidnapped Wurst’s sister. But Wurst arranged for the murder of Danube, so here’s his sister back, and all’s well, right? Well, except that the ex-boyfriend/producer is figuring to kill Wurst as soon as he can. Wurst takes a cue from the Ghost Who Walks and breaks right back into the ex-boyfriend/producer’s lair. He goes a bit farther than The Phantom and kills them all, including killing the ex-boyfriend/producer with his bare hands. And then reports to his partner (he has a partner?) that it’s successfully done.
Norton gets in touch with his own CIA contact. Of course Wurst, his go-between, double-crossed them; who else could? And for all the work he’s done for “rogue” and illegal CIA operations, what could they do but turn on and eat their own? And if it takes trapping April to get Norton, why not? The CIA contact says he totally wasn’t trying to take Norton down. He even gave the Los Angeles police that tip about Neddy Spencer, to confuse things and buy Norton time. Also that, well, now there’s like a dozen CIA agents outside Norton’s cabin. Retrenchment: you can’t run around being crazy-superpowered killers for hire, not forever. You get attention. You get caught.
He tells April to save herself, like by using the tunnel out the back. One might think the CIA would have someone posted to watch the tunnel out back. But, c’mon, we can allow in a work of fiction the idea that the CIA might make a blunder that a modest bit of intelligence-gathering would avoid. And, I suppose, they cared about Norton, who goes out in the open to keep their attention. April was only of passing interest, as merely being an escapee from Super Duper Top Secret CIA Agent Jail. She sneaks out.
Neddy Spencer and Huerta have second thoughts about leaving Clarke alone. He swears he’s had enough of police and isn’t going to tell anyone anything. But: he has a lot of information about Danube’s death and if he doesn’t tell anyone anything, and he gets killed, then what happens? So they go back to his apartment. The find him and his roommate, on the floor, in pools of their own blood. They start to back away when they’re confronted by a sinister-talking man in an brown suit. He knows who they are. And says he was leaving, but this is great for him. Killing them right now will clear up a lot of things. Less great for him: April Parker’s there, and ready to kill him. This is another by-hand killing. Huerta, who doesn’t know April Parker even exists, is horrified by this, and that Neddy knows this. April says, “I heard the CIA set you up. Sam helped me once. So consider us even”. … All right, then.
There are comic strips it’s safe to make guesses about storyline shapes. Judge Parker, these days, is not among them. But I think we are getting into retrenchment on the Murder of Godiva Danube. One where people who have authority in investigating murders take the lead on the investigation, and about arresting the people who can be arrested and declaring innocent the people who are. I’m expecting a narrative bubble to the effect of “Months Pass … ” soon. We’ll see how that works out.
Anyway, so, certainly dead: Godiva Danube. Danube’s drug-kingpin ex-boyfriend/bad-movie-producer. Drug-Kingpin’s bodyguards and “support network”. Mysterious CIA-affiliated man come to kill off Neddy Spencer. Danube’s temp Los Angeles boyfriend Steve Clarke and his roommate. Possibly dead: April Parker’s father Norton.
Oh, what’s ever going on in Judge Parker? Lots of stuff. Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manely’s comic strip has not been sluggishly plotted. This is my best attempt, as of early-to-mid June 2018, to recap the last couple months. If none of this stuff seems relevant, you may need an essay at or near the top of this page, where its successors should appear. But if you’re reading this around June or July 2018, maybe this will help you out. Glad to help.
Big personal revelations were on the way last time I checked in on Judge Parker. Randy Parker, shocked by his wife’s daring escape from Super Double Top Secret Federal Jail Prison, turned to obsessive paranoia. He got so busy wiring his house with cameras and watching everything. And not leaving the house. His father, the original Judge Alan Parker, points out he’s not doing enough judge work. And if you can imagine doing so little judge work that Judge Parker notices, well. But Randy stays resolute. After her prison break, disavowed CIA agent April Parker had come to the house, promising that she’d be back to take their child. Maybe Randy too. He’s determined not to let that happen.
But he does need groceries. And diapers. So he goes to the supermarket and cute-meets Toni Bowen. She’s the local reporter who leapt to the national desk covering the collapse of Godiva Danube and Neddy Spencer’s clothing factory. She also fell back to the local news after her next big story, Sophie Driver’s kidnapping, was too confusing to follow. And how she didn’t destroy Randy Parker interviewing him about April Parker’s prison escape.
Two months pass, per the caption on the 2nd of April. Randy and Toni are sharing Netflix passwords. Toni’s wary about this. Randy’s a former interview subject, after all. And is likely to be an interview subject again, considering that he’s still married, to a federal fugitive who’s also a hypercompetent CIA-trained assassin. She wants all this kept quiet. Randy would like to but he kind of mentioned it to Sam Driver. While Sophie Driver could overhear. Also all their relationship is taking place inside Randy Parker’s home. Which, Toni finally gets around to pointing out, is monitored by dozens of Internet-connected cameras.
So Randy accepts the argument that he’s got to live unafraid of April’s sure return. He turns off all the security cameras in time for Alan Parker to point out that April could be watching the house all the time. But what are the odds she’s doing that?
April asks her father, Norton, what it means that the security cameras have been turned off. She’s had a storyline that’s mostly played out in the Sunday strips. She’s strained by her new life. She’s travelling the world murdering people with her father. Who’s constantly making jokes that aren’t even Dad Jokes. There’s a lot of jokes, mind you. Often ones that seem contextually inappropriate, like in the aftermath of a murder pointing out there’s milanos in the glove compartment.
It’s part of Francesco Marciuliano’s writing. The characters do joke. Many of them are weird little not-quite-non-sequiturs, such as many of Norton’s little asides. Many of them are moments of self-deprecation as characters realize they’ve been acting foolishly. A bit of this is refreshing self-awareness. Too much of it sounds sitcom-y. Not to the extent that Dan Thompson’s Rip Haywire gets. Several times the past few months it’s gotten more snarky than I like. It feels like reflexive snark. Snark is fun, but it’s corrosive when done without thought. And that’s unfortunate, since I’ve been enjoying the plotting. Marciuliano has embraced making the stories as crazypants as possible. He’s also made good use of bouncing soap-opera-loony plots off of characters who, if belatedly, come to their senses. It keeps the stories from being too absurd for my tastes.
And the style can work. For example, in the third major plot developing the past several months. This is in Los Angeles, where the scene transitions are flagged by the narration box with movie-script format. This thread follows Neddy Spencer, who’s solving all her problems by moving to a new city and working in the field of becoming famous. She’s having trouble making friends, which changes when Godiva Danube turns up at her restaurant.
Godiva had urged Neddy to come with her to Los Angeles; Neddy had seen this as emotional manipulation on Godiva’s part. But you see where this is a heap of awkward. Her coworker Ronnie tries to guide her through the scene. And she starts to like Neddy, the way anyone starts to like a person they do a favor for. Ronnie dives in to rescue Neddy when the quarrel with Godiva gets too intense.
And here — this past week — these three threads crash together. Norton and April are in Los Angeles to kill someone. Who’s staying in Room 237 (get it?) of some hotel. Toni Bowen gets promoted from the break-of-dawn to the 5 pm newscast. The first story: new developments in an old story. And Ronnie has news for Neddy: Godiva’s dead.
So every now and then I get to writing one of these essays well ahead of time. Like, get the whole thing roughed out by Monday or Tuesday before it needs to be published. Every time this makes my weekend so much easier. Do I learn from this to get stuff done early? Maybe even, if I have a free hour, write up story-so-far paragraphs for the comics I know are coming up soon? No, I absolutely refuse to learn and do things that make my life easier. But, c’mon, if you’re going to drop something like that on me, the day before this What’s-Going-On-In essay publishes, you’re just teaching me to write as close to deadline as possible. It’s not fair, is what it isn’t.
So What’s The Deal With This Apartment 3-G Talk?
Well, that was interesting. As Norton and April approached what I have taken to be Godiva’s hotel room [*] there was a fake-out strip. On the 2nd of June, a black-haired woman accepted a pizza delivery. She’s at a door marked 3-G.
An Apartment 3-G reference? Of course; what else makes sense here? What’s interesting is the question of whether Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley are planning to bring an Apartment 3-G thread into the storyline. King Features Syndicate (I assume) holds the publication rights on both properties, after all. And it’s not a frightening innovation to have characters from a cancelled strip appear in a still-ongoing one. The cliffhanger on which the comic strip Annie ended was eventually resolved in Dick Tracy. And characters from Brenda Starr, The Spirit, and the Green Hornet have popped up in Joe Staton and Mike Curtis’s comic. (Of course, who hasn’t? Characters from Popeye, Terry and the Pirates, and Harold Teen have made cameos there. Yes, yes, Popeye is technically still in production, as far as we know, but it’s barely seen.) Keeping the property alive by references in other strips, until it can be grittily rebooted, would make good sense.
And Marciuliano might be game. In Sally Forth he’s several times written flash-forward strips, where Hilary Forth and her friends Faye and Nona are young adults sharing an apartment. Many Sally Forth readers note how that setup is close enough to Apartment 3-G‘s for jazz. I’m not aware that Marciuliano has expressed any interest in doing a quiet Apartment 3-G revival. The 2nd of June’s strip is adequately explained as faking out the reader. But I can’t rule out that Marciuliano might intend to plot something wild. I am checking with the rules committee about whether it is possible to take my Apartment 3-G essay tag out of retirement.
[*] We have seen Norton and April enter a hotel room. We’ve seen a woman laying on the bed. We’ve gotten the news that Godiva is dead. But we have not — as of Saturday, the 9th of June anyway — seen a direct statement that this woman was Godiva, nor that she was killed by Norton and April’s action. I’m aware of soap opera rules too.
I last checked in at Christmastime, and an exciting time. April Parker escaped Rogue CIA Agent Prison, with the help of her father Norton. The plan: the Parkers flee the country and take up a life as fugitives. When Judge (Retired) Alan Parker refused this as bonkers, Norton left him unconscious on the floor of his house and, for all we could tell, dead. April burst into her and Randy Parker’s house. She announced she was taking their daughter Charlotte, who would not be growing up without her father.
With every police agency in the world closing in Randy and April argue it out. April advances the thesis: what’s crazy about them becoming international fugitives anyway? Randy answers: every single piece of this. With time running out Norton’s henchman Wurst grabs at Randy; April orders him to stand down or “I will bury you so deep the magma will burn you”.
The aftermath, as revealed following the New Year: April did not take Charlotte or Randy before leaving, promising to always love him. And also to be back for Charlotte one day. She flees into the police headlights and gunfire and only Marciuliano and Manley can guess what. There is (on the 18th of January) a suggestive picture of a good-sized ship sailing to sea. I suppose that says what the authros’ intent was.
Randy, seeing his life ruined, takes the chance to ruin someone else’s. Not on purpose. But the accidental target is Toni Bowen. She was the reporter covering the last of previous writer Woody Wilson’s crazypants throw-money-at-the-Parkers schemes. That was the opening of the aerospace-factory-loaded-with-cargo-containers-and-made-a-clothing-factory-for-the-elderly. I told you it was a crazypants scheme. Anyway, Bowen was there when Marciuliano had all that dropped into a sinkhole. This propelled her to a reporting job at a national cable news channel. Randy gives only her an interview about all the current craziness.
Bowen’s already on a Performance Improvement Plan. The sinkhole was an exciting story. But nobody was actually to blame for it. And emergency responers were efficient and effective. That sort of thing spoils a good cable-news feeding frenzy. She was there to report the embezzling-stalker truck driver that was another of Marciuliano’s first plot threads. But that story, in-universe, ended up too weird and confusing for it to be exciting reporting. Her boss has one item on the Plan: make Parker admit something about April’s whereabouts and plans. If he won’t, at least emotionally destroy him live on nationwide television. But Randy doesn’t know anything about her plans. And Bowen doesn’t move in for the kill. So she’s sent back to local TV news where at least she can insult the camera guy being all passive-aggressive about her failure in the bigger leagues.
Those threads take a pause. Over to Alan Parker and his attempts to reconnect with Katherine. (And putting the lie to one of Norton’s parting-shot lies, by the way, that Katherine had moved on and would have nothing to do with her husband again.) Their let’s-try-dating-anew has got to the point of bed-and-breakfast weekends. They spend theirs in a town being all overbearing with its apple cider thing. Also possibly being out of season for apple cider, if my experience with Quality Dairy proclaiming Cider’s A-Pourin’ is any guide. But the town was also doing a special showing of The Cider House Rules. This raises the question of whether the town watched the movie before scheduling it. (And I mention this because my love had, in teaching, shown The Cider House Rules enough to get truly sick and resentful of every frame of the movie. And then the Michigan state tourism board decided to use the movie’s haunting Twee Little Recurring Theme for its TV and radio ads. So now any commercial break can be a sudden jab of emotional pain.)
Back to the Spencer Farms. Neddy’s been kicking around depressed ever since Marciuliano took over the writing and the factory collapsed and all that. She’s shaken out of that by a drop-in from Godiva Danube. She’s the movie star whose connections made the container-cargo-clothing-factory-sinkhole-collapse possible. Godiva thinks she’s about to get back into Hollywood and invites Neddy to be along as her assistant. She throws Godiva out. (Godiva leaves her purse behind, which Neddy says was on purpose so Godiva “could return for one more dramatic scene”. That isn’t paid off on-screen yet.) Still, Neddy takes the idea of moving to Los Angeles as a great one. There’s few things that cure aimless depression like moving to a new city without any prospects, connections, or particular reason to be there. Abby Spencer points this out and gets chased out of the guest house for her trouble. We’ve all been there. (Seriously people Seattle is not the cure for your broken soul and it’s too crowded already so lay off it.)
So this past week we got back to Randy Parker. Who, it turns out, has responded to this latest turn in his life by picking up Sam Driver’s crazy evidence wall and trying out paranoia himself. In fairness, he’s afraid of some ridiculously capable people who’ve promised to take his daughter. But he’s also been skipping out on, you know, work. And when you’re doing so little law work that Judge Alan Parker notices you’re not doing law work, you’ve reached galaxy-brain levels of slacking off. Could be trouble.
OK, so you know how ridiculous the last Amazing Spider-Man plot was? And then thisAmazing Spider-Man plot started out with Bruce Banner and Chuck “The Lizard” Connors and all? Well, the story got all blood-transfusiony and just so wonderfully, magnificently goofy and yes, J Jonah Jameson has come back into things. I can’t wait to tell you all about Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, and Alex Saviuk’s Amazing Spider-Man next week. Heck, I might just do it Wednesday to make sure I don’t miss anything.
I don’t know how many movies I was introduced to by SCTV. Possibly everything that wasn’t a kid’s movie. (Indeed, just last night I caught a moment of The Unholy Rollers and realize I just saw the source for one of SCTV’s Movies of the Week although I can’t place the title just now.) But I was also introduced to a genre by SCTV. They ran a soap opera spoof, The Days Of The Week. It started with a simple premise, the town’s respected surgeon trying to con a widow out of her fortune by setting up a patsy to play her long-lost son. Within a half-dozen sketches they had dozens of conspiracies unfolding at a wedding interrupted by multiple gun-weilding fanatics. And somewhere along the line I realized they had made a ridiculous yet strangely legitimate soap opera. They just chose to make every possible storyline go crazy, and cling to the crazy.
When I last checked in on Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker the strip had just jumped three months ahead. April Parker was in super-duper top-secret jail after being framed for a complicated CIA-based fiasco. Randy Parker’s been united with his daughter Charlotte, through the workings of April’s father Norton. But the craziness and Alan’s secrecy has smashed his relationship with his wife Katherine, and she’s leaving. It had blown up what of the status quo hadn’t been blown up already. It was crazy.
Alan fumbles the last chance of Katherine reconciling with Alan. She sees he’s mining their scenario for his stalled-out novel. Sophie Spencer, recovering from her own kidnapping at the hands of her mother’s long-lost half-sister, buys a replacement guitar. And talks with Neddy, who’s herself recovering from when her ill-conceived clothing factory fell into a sinkhole. And Neddy agrees with Sophie that yeah, she needs to have some focus for her life again. That’s a couple weeks spent working out older stories and setting them basically in order. A not-crazy order.
Then we got to the end of October, and focus on April Parker. She’s spending her three-year prison sentence the way Calvin might spend having to sit in the corner and almost as successfully. She picks fights with her cellmate, her blockmates, the guards, the plumbing, the air, and several imaginary friends. So the early-release plans are off. Randy isn’t able to talk her down and fears she’s going to go crazy.
One night Alan’s pondering how screwed up everything is when Norton breaks in. Norton dismisses Alan’s complaints that his scheming and conspiracies have destroyed his life. And explains that he’s there to reunite the family, for example by breaking April out of her maximum-security federal prison. And flee the country with Randy and Charlotte. And Norton won’t discuss whether there’s any options that don’t involve doing the craziest possible thing.
And this past week the crazy thing happens. Norton kidnaps Alan. His operatives break April out of prison. April breaks in to her and Randy’s house, collects Charlotte, and informs him they’re going to become a family of fugitives. He tries to point out, this is crazy.
So something like sixteen months into his tenture writing Judge Parker Francesco Marciuliano has thoroughly embraced the Days of the Week style plotting. It’s almost seemed like a search for status quos to blow up. And clings to that.
Did Aunt May marry Melvin the Mole Man after all? Who’s this one-armed fellow in Florida that Peter Parker’s hanging out with? Who’s throwing all these alligators around? And why isn’t there more Rocket Raccoon? There’ll be answers to some of this when I get back to Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, and Alex Saviuk’s Amazing Spider-Man. Spoiler: no, somehow, Aunt May did not get married.
Are you interested in the current storyline in Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker? Are you reading this in or near early October 2017? Because if your answer to both is ‘yes’ then great, glad to have you here. If your answer to the first is ‘yes’ and the second ‘no’, the comic strip might have gotten on to some completely different storyline. So this essay might be true enough but not helpful. If I’ve written a successor it should be at or near the top of this page. If your answer to the first question is ‘no’ I’ll try to be interesting anyway but I admit I feel a little hurt you’d be so blunt.
My last update on Judge Parker storylines came suspiciously close to a change in the plots. This keeps happening with my What’s Going On In updates, by the way. I’m definitely not arranging stuff with Comic Strip Master Command to make these recaps come within a week or so of one story yielding to the next. It’s still weird.
I had said last update that it looked like the one major storyline dormant since Marciuliano took over writing the strip — the whereabouts and activity of April Parker, Super-Secret Spy Person — seemed to be heating up. Current Judge Randy Parker was falling apart with his wife and by-now-born child missing somewhere in one of those foreign countries where the CIA is always sending Super-Secret Spy Persons. Retired Judge Alan Parker was visiting, trying to help him through this. And he brought a guest.
It was April Parker, along with a picture she said was their daughter Charlotte. Who’s somewhere “safe” and “in the country” that she gives Randy. She gives Alan an audio cassette. And then gives herself to the CIA-types who appear at the door, as foretold in the Thursday strip the week before. The CIA types let Alan and Randy keep their tape and the picture, which seems criminally negligent of them, so it’s plausible.
There’s an SD card taped to the back of Randy’s picture. Randy pops over to Sam Driver’s farm and plays April’s tale of entrapment and betrayal. April’s supervisors had been testing her on make-work assignments, and now she’s invited to join a secret sub-unit of the CIA, “patriots who just go that extra step”, the sort of thing that never goes wrong, ever, except for every time, ever. She’s revolted by the rogue agency, even before hearing about the “profit-sharing” potential, and horrified that by going on enough of what she now knows were nonsense assignments she’s been coopted into their group.
Norton, her father, pops in. He’s a faintly Dr Strangelove-esque figure with segmented cigar and the ability to kill any number of off-panel henchmen, so he’s well-suited to gun down the agent trying to recruit April. He promises that he can get April to safety, shelter her child when it’s born, and get word back to Randy Parker by way of his contacts.
So that’s what led to the situation as unfurled: April was in hiding long enough to give birth, and prepare her recordings and messages and all that and to wait for the collapsed-clothing-factory and the kidnapped-Sophie stories to reach a quiet patch. And he brings the infant Charlotte Parker to Alan, who’ll have to keep the child in secret until the heat’s off.
Over to Toni Bowen, the reporter who was on the scene when the deranged clothing factory storyline imploded. She’s not had much success since the factory collapse and the kidnapping of Sophie Spencer; her boss points out that the embezzling-stalker truck driver story went nowhere, which is unduly harsh on Marciuliano. It was a weird complicated side thread, but I liked that everyone in a soap opera universe is going through some crazypants events. Anyway, April’s sent her all the news about the rogue CIA agents, which shows that the Parker-Spencer-Davis clan does indeed forgive and bestow blessings even on those who’ve antagonized them, sometimes. Alan Parker, figuring the heat’s off somehow, brings Charlotte to Randy.
So. Three-month jump ahead in time. April Parker’s in jail, promising that between her testimony and her planned excellent behavior she’ll be released in under three years. Randy and Charlotte are as happy as could be. Alan’s wife, Katherine, is still furious enough about all this secret agent nonsense that she’s taken the flash forward as chance to leave, possibly from the strip altogether.
And that’s three months mostly spent explaining what April was up to. The story was mostly about characters learning what was, to them, in the past. But it’s not like the strips being flashbacks mean we weren’t watching tense stuff happen. Also we got some idea of who the mysterious figure sending Alan Parker cassette tapes with needlessly cryptic instructions was. (This might have been established before, but I don’t remember it.) And, after a bit over a year of this, I believe Marciuliano has finally taken all the plot threads left over from Woody Wilson’s writing tenure and done something with them. Mostly that’s been tamping them down to involve less unceasing praise of the Parker-Spencer-Davis clan. That’s involved a lot of blowing up the status quo, including another set of people being gunned down. There’s plenty of room to develop the stories from here. Most of the directions involve a lot of things families can quite correctly argue about. Should be quite some potential there.
You know what’s a comic strip that seems very close to wrapping up its current storyline? Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, and Alex Saviuk’s Amazing Spider-Man. Please join us in Spider-Man’s natural habitat, the cavernous tunnels underneath Los Angeles, where a Roman Emperor with his own Fountain of Youth hopes to launch the conquest of the surface world and also break up Aunt May’s romance with Melvin the Mole Man. I realize I sound like I’m joking about what a Silver Age comic book would do, but no, this is what’s happening.
Sam Driver, having got nowhere with his Crazy Evidence Wall, chose to meet up with Totally Legitimate Non-Suspended Non-Crazy Not-An-Ex-Cop Sean Ballenger. He’s the father of one of the other kidnapped teens and wants Sam’s help finding any booby traps and remaining homicidal gunmen at the kidnappers’ hideout. On the way there Ballenger mentions that, oh yeah, he’s been suspended from the force and isn’t handling a really severe trauma any better than Sam is and oh yeah, here’s the booby traps, right where the homicidal Woman Who Sounds Like Abbey left her webcam pointed. Sam starts to suspect a trap, but Ballenger’s so enthusiastic about it he gets himself severely wounded even before the Woman Who Sounds Like Abbey can shoot them.
While Ballenger distracts the Woman Who Sounds Like Abbey by bleeding profusely, Sam discovers her wall of Off-Model Spencer Family Photos, plus her time bomb. He grabs Ballenger and runs him right out into waiting police with drawn guns ordering them not to move. Sam’s not even able to explain that he’s both rich and white before the bomb explodes, destroying the compound and what’s left of Sean Ballenger’s career. With this mess on their hands the police give the whole kidnapping investigation a serious escalation, moving it into the hands of some guy with a much darker suit jacket.
Back home, Sam shares with Abbey some evidence he’d been withholding from the police. The Off-Model Spencer Family Photo he’d taken just before the bombing leads to the discovery Abbey’s father had a whole second family. It’s a good juicy bit of gossip, and a nice proper soap-opera development. It does make me wonder, though, like, was Abbey’s father already an established character back in the day? What would Nicholas P Dallis, or whatever later author introduced Abbey’s father, think of this wrinkle being added to his life? I suppose they don’t really have a say, what with being dead or retired from the strip or whatnot, and maybe they’d like having something juicy and exciting like that added to the character’s story.
It makes me realize among the reasons I shouldn’t write a story comic is that I’d be afraid of breaking someone else’s universe by doing something like that. That’s not to say I think Marciuliano is breaking anything; the development’s a fine enough one. It’s about my worries about how ineptly I’d do something like this. I mean, ask me to write about the week Captain Kirk spent falsely accused of a jewel heist on Rocket Raccoon’s planet? I could probably whip that one out. Ask me to write something that changes our ideas of what drives Captain Kirk as a person? No way. Something mentioned a good deal in how-to-write texts is that there’s a certain arrogance in writing. The writer has to assume that she has something worth reading. It seems like it requires a certain greater arrogance to do your writing with someone else’s work. At least it takes self-confidence.
Sam shaves off his Crazy Beard and takes down his Crazy Evidence Wall, to restart it with a perfectly rational and appropriate thumbtacking up of the Off-Model Spencer Family Photo. And Sophie Spencer, released from full-time psychiatric care, goes to her (biological; she was adopted by Sam and Abbey) grandfather’s grave in search of reassurance. Abbey follows, and can give a hug, in a scene that is touching.
So with that done Sophie offers some more information about the Woman Who Sounds Like Abbey. The Woman — named Senna Lewiston, it transpires — believed Abbey’s father was going to leave her mother and marry Senna’s mother. In revenge for the “stolen” life Senna had Sophie kidnapped and was trying to gain her sympathy and support in destroying Abbey’s life and place in life.
Meanwhile, one can’t help but notice we haven’t actually seen the body of the Woman Who Sounds Like Abbey. So, you know, soap opera rules. Plus, Senna Lewiston, the police had worked out, somehow bought the kidnapping compound in cash, despite the lack of visible means of supporting massively complicated, expensive revenge schemes. How to explain this? Good question and possibly related to a plot thread that’s been dormant for months, possibly since Marciuliano took over the strip last fall. April Parker, wife of the current Judge Randy Parker, and sometime CIA … person, was sent off on a mission to one of those foreign countries the CIA is always sending people off to in soap opera stories like this. She hasn’t been head from since. And Randy suspects his wife “may have betrayed this country, and she certainly betrayed our marriage with secrets upon secrets”, since she’s gone missing and the CIA won’t stop asking him where she went. So he’s been letting the house get disarrayed enough that the Judge (ret) Alan Parker has noticed, and he’s thinking about putting together his own Crazy Evidence Wall.
Caught up? Good. The strange thing to me about all this is how much there’s been both a lot happening and yet it’s only been one story. And, for that matter, only a couple of days of action within that story. It’s not so breathtaking and baffling as immediately after Marciuliano took over. And basically all the crazy stuff has been explained in ways that pass an initial reading. There may be implications that don’t make sense, but the emotional tone and course of stuff has been believable enough. And with the April Parker storyline heating up I’m looking forward to this fictional CIA fiasco almost as much as I’m looking forward to our next real-life CIA fiasco. Can’t wait.
In its third straight day of sliding the Another Blog, Meanwhile index dropped below two hundred bringing it to territory it hasn’t seen since the 9th of June and that’s somehow the worst thing these people can imagine happening even though that was like three and a half weeks ago. I mean, they sound a little whiny to me, too.
When last I talked about Judge Parker, new writer Francesco Marciuliano had finished his round of thoroughly blowing up the Parker and Spencer families’ incredible streak of fantastic good luck and fortune’s favor. Judge (Retired) Alan Parker’s movie deal had stalled and his new book was going nowhere. Sophie Parker had reappeared after months missing, with the rest of her band still gone, abducted by strange parties unknown. And Parker Sr had received a mysterious bouquet and message from shadowy intelligence-types, and made a promise to “have it done for you soon”.
Blowing up plots is fun and, relatively speaking, easy. How has Marciuliano handled putting things back together?
Sophie, understandably still traumatized, gets into therapy. It played as a belated move, but just because even when stuff is happening swiftly there’s only a few panels per day and a lot was going on. In-story it was clearly set up within days of her release. This might still be late, but after all, nobody expected her tolerably safe return. She reveals that the only thing she knows of her kidnapper is that she soundd “so much like Abbey”, calling her adopted mother “a cheat” who “doesn’t deserve what she has”. It’s hard not to see this as teasing the fourth wall, or smashing right past it, given the years during which the Parker-Spencer-Drivers were in fortune’s favor. Marciuliano had a more literal, and classically soap-operatic, idea in mind.
The other kidnapped kids reappear with their own harrowing tales. They had been kept in a remote shack, fed occasionally, waiting for any sign they might be able to escape, or any hint about what this was all about. They don’t get much. Some kind of ransom, some kind of torture to make Sophie Spencer “fall in line”. And then the gradual and then sudden collapse of the kidnapping scheme, as the woman in charge — the one who sounded so much like Abbey — has a fallout with another woman, “the only one who ever helped” her. The One Who Sounded Like Abbey shoots her partner, and then starts shooting the guards. The kids escape when she comes around to kill them, injuring but not killing The One Who Sounded Like Abbey.
So who is The One Who Sounded Like Abbey? The clear implication is that she’s Abbey’s sibling, or some other person with a claim to the Spencer family (and fortune), denied for reasons not yet revealed. Or at least someone who believes she has a claim.
Not yet resolved: who the mysterious intelligence-type guy was that phoned Judge Parker Senior, or what he was promising to do.
I say Marciuliano’s succeeded in both blowing up the old status quo and putting things together into a plausible, credible, and intriguing new storyline. I’m looking forward to the next couple months of this.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index rose five points when someone looked up legendary 19th Century baseball player Tim Keefe and found out he first played in the major leagues for the Troy, New York, Trojans, inspiring a round of looking up 19th Century baseball team names and subsequent merriment that hasn’t been dimmed even by Richard pointing out how difficult it is to say what a baseball team’s name, as opposed to the nickname they were called by for a while, was before about the 1920s.
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.
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 started to change earlier this year.
Rex Morgan, M.D.
The craziness came on gradually. It always does. It’s one thing when characters have abnormally long stretches of good luck. That happens, at least when authors like their characters so much they wish them well, and can make success happen. It went really crazy with a trip to the museum. I forget the exact details. The museum had been planning a fundraiser, selling this volume of drawings kids contributed. A little odd but I could imagine that working. Then Sarah Morgan drew a horsey. A really good horsey. The kind of horsey that left everyone awestruck with her horsey-drawing abilities. The book mutated. It would be one of Sarah Morgan’s drawings, horseys and anything else she wanted to draw. Also it would hae a much bigger press run. Maybe worldwide distribution. Also she’d be brought in to the museum to draw and be seen drawing by tour groups. Her first day at this she spotted and overthrew the class bully of some tour group. Also she caught the attention of a none-dare-call-it mafia widow, who hired professional instructors for her. And her father, Rex Morgan, renegotiated the book deal so Sarah would get a much bigger cut of the royalties on this already-bestselling art book.
And then the kindly old widow lady offered to sell Rex Morgan her Victorian-era mansion for whatever cash he had in his wallet right this second, and actually never mind, she’d spot him that too. That’s about where things stood before the 1st of May, when artist Terry Beatty took over the writing duties also for Rex Morgan, M.D.: you could be forgiven thinking this was some parody of the lives of the impossibly well-off.
The six months plus since Woody Wilson stepped away from the comic have been largely one of ratcheting things back down. Some of that’s been handled gracefully: Rex and June Morgan conclude that while the Victorian mansion would be a swell place — furniture included! — it’s really not practical, not with two kids and a dog racing around the place. It’s the sort of quiet little dream-snatching thing which you think of when you’re a grownup.
The mafia wife’s interest in Sarah was explained as trying to make up for her own lost daughter. The museum’s interest in her horsey pictures was because she, as a major donor, was driving them. Is that sensible? I’m not sure, but if I don’t poke at it too hard it sounds like it makes sense. That’s as much as I need in a story. Especially if it’s trying to retcon past excesses away without causing too much trouble.
Other, similarly excessive, storylines have gotten walked back too. Dr Morgan had proclaimed competent Milton Avery, one of those industrialists you see in comic strips who’s incredibly wealthy in the field of business. And who was also barely aware of where he was or what day it was. I forget the pretext. I think that Morgan was doing this out of friendship to either Avery or his daughter, so they might fight off a Board of Directors attempt to replace their dementia-ridden executive. It’s hard to see how Morgan was supposed to be in the right, there. Beatty’s getting Morgan out of that malpractice by having Avery’s condition get far worse, rather quickly, leaving all questions of competence moot. And he’s turning that into a fresh storyline, as Avery’s daughter means to take him back to England and asked Morgan to follow and care for him there.
And then this past month came the biggest change. Sarah got hit by a car, by a distracted driver. It felt startling and a bit of a return to the understated class warfare of pre-May comics. (“See what happens when you let children ride the public school bus like peasants?”) But it also puts Rex Morgan back in the hospital, someplace that Beatty has wanted Morgan to spend more of his time. And where he ought to. Story strips can wander some but it’s weird to get so far away from the medical-comic origins.
I have to rate it as an improvement. The most excessive storylines are being resolved or being retconned into things that less offend reason. And the pacing is improved too; this is the strip which saw June Morgan pregnant for something like 27 months, reader time, and it handled the Morgans buying a new house in about a week’s worth of montage. That’s much more like it.
(By the way, Speers also created Apartment 3-G. One would never confuse that with Judge Parker or Rex Morgan. And that’s got to be some kind of record for creating long-lasting story strips.)
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
And just like that the Another Blog, Meanwhile index dropped two points, owing to our sitting a little too far back in the chair. We lost the good pen, too, and have to resort to the main backup pen. We’re not going to be caught leaning back again because the alternate backup pen is just awful. It’s ball-point.
Comic strip fans, by which I mean people still passionately angry about what Lynn Johnston did to Elizabeth in the last years of For Better Or For Worse, tend to fetishize original artists. It’s understandable. The first several years of a comic strip tend to be its strongest, when the ideas are most exploratory, the writing the most fresh, the characters the most deftly realized. Even if the original artist and writer stay on they tend to fall into patterns and lose the sense of exploration and discovery of a comic strip’s universe and subtle boundaries. When a new person, often a child or grandchild of the original artist, takes over things tend to be worse-received. Perhaps the new artist doesn’t wish to venture too near breaking the comic. Perhaps the new artist, with the best will and talent in the world, just isn’t in tune with the material the way the originator was during the second and third years of syndication.
And yet sometimes the original artist isn’t the best at exploiting the creative idea. Ordinary comic strip readers, by which I mean people who have never while reading Peanuts wondered about whether Schroeder is his first or last name nor formed a strong opinion on the question, probably don’t care. If the comic strip is entertaining what difference whether it’s written and drawn by the original artist, or by her granddaughter, or by the person who happened to be walking past Comic Strip Master Command when the old artist said she was retiring? There is wisdom in this. Good art is its own justification. Only boring trivia buffs care about the first two film versions of The Maltese Falcon. Star Trek: The Next Generation was an intriguingly-designed but dumb mess before Gene Roddenberry was sidelined from it[*]. Sometimes the cover artist records the song better. So here’s the best current example of this phenomenon.
[*] (Admitting that the production of the Next Generation was deeply screwed up early on, and that a lot of the design of the show was David Gerrold’s, who was thrown off the show in its first season.)
Sally Forth, by Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe.
Greg Howard, a lawyer figuring he could get in on some of that sweet syndicated-newspaper-comic-strip money, began Sally Forth in 1982, and needed only fifteen years to learn better. He first turned over the art to Craig MacIntosh, who’s since turned it over to Jim Keefe. The writing went to Francesco Marciuliano.
Jim Keefe’s a fine artist, the last person to draw the Flash Gordon comic strip. Sad to say, and despite some game efforts by Marciuliano, there isn’t much chance to show off action in Sally Forth. There really aren’t any action-adventure strips left. There’s Mark Trail and if it runs in any actual newspapers Rip Haywire, but past that the only real action in a comic is the occasional sports sequence. The modern comic strip mostly uses art as a scaffold to tether the word balloons. We occasionally decry this, but we go on reading comics with indifferent art as long as the writing is there. Keefe does well, though. Even the talky episodes — and there is a lot of talk in the strip — avoid the trap of being static. We get movement.
But, yeah, it’s Marciuliano’s writing that draws interest. Comic strip readers, casual and fans, will put up with almost any art if the writing’s good. Marciuliano made the strip good by what’s probably the only way to make an established thing good again in a lasting, durable way. He looked for emotional honesty in it. After some time spent learning the comic (his WordPress blog has an enlightening description of the earliest days) he wrote to that.
An example. Sally Forth’s original boss, a pompous idiot named Ralph, would in any responsible organization be fired. And eventually he was, and he lived in the horrible loneliness of a middle-aged person whose identity’s been torn away. Marciuliano isn’t a cruel writer. Ralph was allowed to find a new space, a job he does all right despite his own fears, a relationship with someone (Sally Forth’s sister) whose strengths and weaknesses complement his, making them functional, happy people. It’s a set of storylines which retool a stock character into a person.
He also did this by giving Ted Forth a personality. He became the guy who knows every Monty Python quote and had gotten just old enough to not deploy them at every opportunity. You know this kind of person. I’m one. I can still function in normal society. Ted functions, more obviously ridiculously, but he’s supposed to. (The term “man-child” keeps being brought up, not unfairly.) He’s credibly threatened to take over the comic strip altogether. And the comic keeps running towards being a parody of family-and-workplace comic strips.
Then it draws back, returning to emotional honesty. This summer has had Sally and Ted’s daughter Hilary going off to camp, giving them the chance to live like newlyweds again. And then a few weeks ago they realized they don’t feel that way. That there’s something wrong. Something fixable but they don’t know quite what it is or just how to do it. It was a surprise to them. It surprised me as reader. It surprised Marciuliano when he realized it was going that way.
But it was also true. Once made explicit it’s obvious this is a sensible way for their relationship to go. It’s the sort of developing human story that, ironically, story comics don’t do well anymore. The humor strips with continuity, and a storytelling style in which a theme is introduced and riffed on for a week, do it much better.
In one of the strip’s flights of fancy there’ve been a few weeks showing Hilary Forth and her friends ten years in the future, in that exciting time of life of being an adult but still relying on your parents because your car’s alternator is always burning out. Many comic strip fans saw it as a better Apartment 3-G than was the actual Apartment 3-G. Some proposed that Marciuliano was secretly auditioning to write it.
This week, Marciuliano takes over the writing for Judge Parker. That story strip’s taken it particularly rough from comic strip fans the last couple years. It’s gotten a lot of slagging for the not-even-glacial story progression — it’s hard to be sure, but I believe in all sincerity they’ve been covering the same three-day weekend since May of 2015 — and showering of the primary characters with undeserved and increasingly implausible riches, some of that from people who are actually thinking of Rex Morgan, which is pretty much the same strip anyway.