Nothing Is Happening In: Is Something A Thing?

So this past week in Karen Moy and Joe Giella’s Mary Worth, Mary and her darling little imprinted foundling Olivia talked with each other about how wonderful they are with each other and how other people can’t understand them. Um. Well, I guess that’s exactly the impression you get reading the comics. It looked like they did a lot of eating, although I guess that was just the same meal shown over a couple days. Hm.

Well. Ah. In Tony DePaul and Paul Ryan’s The Phantom, the Ghost Who Walks did that thing where a superhero walks around in his civilian guise while the real authorities try to figure out who tied up all the criminals. Then there was yet another weirdly over-specific Jungle Saying (“There are times when The Phantom leaves the jungle and walks the streets of the town like an ordinary man”? That’s nice and catchy, right up there with “On occasion The Phantom searches all over for his car keys and finds he left them in the refrigerator, in the vegetable bin, which is weird because they’re supposed to be either in the tea kettle or embedded in a stick of butter”.) Then he edged as far away from contact with his kids as he could … oh, that’s all what anyone would get from the strip anyway.

Well, Mark Trail didn’t literally punch the radiation poachers this week but … Bah. I give up. You can’t just pick out anything and snark on it. You have to have some attitude and some hope of building it into something better, even if it’s just writing your own story to make sense of it. I can’t turn Fridays into a review of this week’s baffling Compu-Toon panels. There’s not enough meat to them and the guy who draws them seems way too earnest. I’m doomed, I know it.

Nothing Is Happening In Apartment 3-G: A Statement That Will Be Only More True After Tomorrow

Apartment 3-G is, by all reports, to end on Saturday, the 21st of November. I am sincerely sad, and not just because people trying to find out what was with the plotless void of the summer have driven my readership to all-time highs. Well, they’re only all-time highs so far. I don’t like seeing long-running stuff end. I especially don’t like seeing them end on sad, pathetic notes.

And before I forget: Over my mathematics blog I look over recent comic strips and discuss their mathematical themes. I’ve also been giving a tour of sets that mathematicians use a lot as domains and ranges for functions. Please give them a try.

Back to business. What’s the final week of Apartment 3-G held, though? It seems to be trying to make an honest attempt at tying down as many of the loose plot threads as it can, finally. On Monday the narration box opened with the declaration “Four Weeks Later, At Their House … ” to show Margo’s parents talking. This time-jump to get away from the mess of unresolved stories is something the strip has used before.

In this 2013 sequence, a homemade bomb explodes in the Apartment 3-G room. Greg, Margo's boyfriend of the time, wakes, dresses 'hastily', and summons help.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 23rd of January, 2013. The revealing thing about this nearly-three-year-old sequence was that bomb-setter Evan was deeply jealous of this “Eric” whom Margo kept talking about in her sleep. I honestly had not noticed at the time that Margo so remembered her dead fiancé as to be dreaming about him. This makes dead fianceé Eric’s return to haunting her without ever speaking to her in a non-delusional state somehow even worse.

A couple years back a crazed boyfriend of one of Margo planted a bomb that blew up in a charming Christmastime vignette. (Because of comic strip time, the event actually happened a month after Christmas, but that’s not doing too badly.) The comic strip took this promising chance to tell stories about where the characters lived and what they did, presumably separately, while the building was repaired, and the presumably interesting police and court action to follow, and piddled it down its leg. After some admittedly exciting rescue scenes and a few hospital scenes in the burn ward, we got a narrative box that it was “a few weeks later”. Everyone moved back in to an apartment that looked just like it had before.

Still, jumping ahead a couple weeks is an efficient way of getting story threads nailed down quickly. You can just drop anything you don’t have time to deal with. A character can fill in anything essential Mad Libs style. They mention they’re happy now that ___(DEAD FIANCEÉ ERIC)___ has gone back to ___(BEING DEAD IN HIMALAYALAND)___. That reads like a resolution and takes almost no time.

Margo's mother Gabby tells psychic Diane that she should've known she was going to be fired.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 17th of November, 2015. Part of the farewell tour of beloved Apartment 3-G characters such as the lamp, affectionately known as Lampy; the various dressers with knickknacks; and what might be a wine decanter of some kind or possibly a lost genie bottle in the first panel? Anyway, if the laws of perspective held, that’d be a pretty tall dresser to put stuff on top of. It was in this strip that I realized that at some point within the past year, Gabby has in earnest delivered “I know you are but what am I?” as a retort.

Monday through Thursday was entirely Margo’s parents talking to one another, violently not making eye contact while taking a tour of the few random backdrops left to the artwork. Granted the things Margo had been thinking about, before her eight-month sojourn through the Manhattan wastelands, had all related to her parents’ wedding and her mother’s falling under the spell of a fake psychic. It’s still an odd choice to have the last week of the comic strip basically feature none of the main cast.

Gabby, Margo’s mother, broke up with her fake psychic because of the reasons, so that’s one storyline and the proximate cause of Margo’s breakdown resolved. And the Martin/Gabby wedding is apparently on, since they speak of “our” wedding on Wednesday. They speak of this prominently enough that only the reader who’s ever read any other piece of fiction, ever, would suspect this was setting up for a double Martin/Gabby and Margo/Greg-or-possibly-dead-Eric-who-died-of-death wedding to close out the comic strip’s run.

Gabby is so happy at how Margo looks that she could cry. Martin agrees they're lucky to have their daughter.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 19th of November, 2015. Possibly our last view of that strange kind of pine-needley plant that gets dropped in wherever the white void of nothingness gets a little too much for the comic strip. Also I think Gabby and Martin are wearing the same outfit but in different colors. This makes it remarkable that the randomly applied flood-filling that’s done to colorize the daily comics managed to get the colors correct literally every panel this week.

Thursday takes place in a nearly featureless void, with a plant growing out of the date box. It would be appropriate for the start of a double wedding ceremony. Granted, Gabby and Martin aren’t dressed for a wedding, certainly not one they’d be part of. They’re more dressed to experience that vague awkwardness of maybe being a little overdressed for TGI Fridays without being actually, clearly, too dressed up for it.

So, of course, having teased the idea of a double wedding Friday dashes that. Margo makes her first appearance in a week and a half to say she isn’t marrying Greg, who she wasn’t planning to marry even before she spent 2015 wandering around a featureless void.

Gabby tells Margo how Greg adores him. Margo explains that she's not marrying him.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 20th of November, 2015. I choose to believe that Gabby is watching Margo in the mirror, just in case Margo reveals herself to be a vampire. Meanwhile Margo reveals herself not to be interested in marrying Greg, because she’s saving herself for her dead fianceé Eric, or she’s hoping the strip will get rebooted as a CBS Digital Download next year. Also because she thinks someone was proposing she get married to Greg?

Obviously this’ll be the last Friday-night-Eastern-Time post recapping the nothing happening in Apartment 3-G. I do mean to have some closing thoughts, after the final strip posts. I don’t suppose there’s another story strip likely to capture the strange baffling charm of the last few years of Apartment 3-G.

What I Think Of The Peanuts Movie

In the opening scene of The Peanuts Movie, Charlie Brown is setting out his kite for one more try at flying the stupid thing. That’s natural enough. He may fail every time, but he won’t stop, which is part of what makes him an admirable character. The thing is, it’s the middle of winter. Other characters mock him for this. He reasons the kite-eating tree can’t get his kite in this weather. It’s plausible enough. It even feels, at least a bit, like something the character in the comic strip would do. Especially in the strip’s late-90s renaissance, when Charles Schulz found new inspiration and played a bit more overtly with the comic strip’s motifs and running gags. So I can rationalize it. I can see where it makes sense, if not effortlessly, then at least because I can believe in the thinking needed to make that come about.

That’s what I suppose my verdict on The Peanuts Movie has to be. It’s a project that shows an obsessive, almost fan-like devotion to the comic strip. It attempts to do some original things. I can see where all the reasoning makes sense, even if it seems to fall a bit short of being quite natural. The wintertime kite-flying ends in a crash, as it could not help but do. The sequence goes on to Snoopy swiping Linus’s blanket, and recreates the ice-skating-chaos scene of A Charlie Brown Christmas. And that’s another of the movie’s driving forces, a desire to touch on classic or at least remembered pieces of the comic strip or older specials.

I mean, there’s a scene that arguably calls out It’s Magic, Charlie Brown, one of those Peanuts specials that gets included as an extra to pad out the running time of the remembered, better-liked specials. There’s a quick appearance by not just Snoopy’s sister Belle, but of Belle’s son. You may remember him from his two appearances in the comics in 1976, or as the answer to the never-asked trivia question “did Snoopy have any nephews?” There’s even a quick reference to 5. 5 — 555 95472, to give him his full name — is the Boba Fett of Peanuts, an exceedingly minor character with more appearances and more fan interest than he deserves.

Ahead of the movie’s release my love asked what I hoped for from it. I had ambiguous feelings. It struck me there were always basically two kinds of Peanuts specials or movies. There are the emotion-driven ones — A Boy Named Charlie Brown (the spelling bee movie), A Charlie Brown Christmas, Snoopy Come Home, There’s No Time For Love, Charlie Brown, that ilk. Then there are the plot-driven ones — Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown, It’s A Mystery, Charlie Brown, She’s A Good Skate, Charlie Brown. Generally speaking, the more emotion-driven the better. What makes Peanuts fly is its emotional core — the indignation of wondering why everybody else gets to be happy — and if you want to have a plot, it should serve that. So I hoped for an emotion-driven movie.

(That isn’t to say strong plots make for bad Peanuts. But strong plots make it easy to get so wrapped up in doing things that you lose the sense of what you’re doing them for.)

The Peanuts Movie has a fairly strong plot, although it is a plot about emotions. Charlie Brown wants desperately to impress the new kid in class, the Little Red-Haired Girl. And thus there’s this string of little episodes of schemes attempting to be impressive, which all go wrong. Any one of them is all right. Any one of them could be its own special, really, and probably carry that weight adequately. That there’s so many episodes gets to be wearying. I think I’d have chosen to drop one and provide more time to savor the others, were I making the movie.

The runtime of the movie and the decision to make the plot “Charlie Brown Tries To Impress The Little Red-Haired Girl” work against each other, though. The problem with the Little Red-Haired Girl as a character is that she hasn’t got any character. She’s an invisible slate in the comic strip. All we know about her is that Charlie Brown thinks he likes her, and she chews her pencil, and her grandmother has red hair too. As long as she stays off-screen that’s enough. We don’t need to know why something is important to a character in order to accept that it is important to the character.

Put her on-screen, though, and she has to do something, show some reason why Charlie Brown should put any effort into impressing her. She almost has to do something at the climax, either accept or reject Charlie Brown. If she rejects him then the audience has good reason to have nothing to do with her again. If she accepts him, well, that’s nice, but then what do they have to talk about? Her only character traits are that she’s somehow tantalizing to Charlie Brown, and a mystery to the audience. You’re In Love, Charlie Brown — with a strikingly similar plot — gets away with this. Its short running time helps it. None of Charlie Brown’s attempts can take up too much time, and the contact between Charlie Brown and the Little Red-Haired Girl is short and ambiguous enough to preserve her tantalizing mystery. I’m sad that the encounter between Charlie Brown and the Little Red-Haired Girl couldn’t be shorter and more ambiguous in the movie.

This plotting problem could probably have been avoided if they had ditched the Little Red-Haired Girl and used another character from the comics — Peggy Jean, Charlie Brown’s girlfriend from the 90s strips. She was always a character on-screen and accessible. She could interact with Charlie Brown in the relaxed, easy way that makes it easy to understand why Charlie Brown might like her, and why audiences might like them as a couple. But Peggy Jean never had that tantalizing and mysterious aspect, and never captured the public’s imagination the way the Little Red-Haired Girl did. Peggy Jean might have made for a less tortured story. What can you do when a central character can only be glimpsed from afar and can’t say much of substance, and can’t even be addressed by name? But I must admit nobody who isn’t a hardcore Peanuts fan even remembers Peggy Jean existed. Even some who are hardcore fans forget her. The marketing logic probably overwhelmed the plotting logic.

There is much likable about this. The animation style, for example, I think worked better than it had any rights to. (Though there are a few dream sequences with classic animation, and which show how unbelievably awesome traditional animation done on a feature budget would make Schulz’s line style. Add to his personable, wavering line a fluttering in time and you have almost perfected animation. Anytime a straight line has personality you are doing art brilliantly right.) There’s a running secondary plot of Snoopy writing a World War I Flying Ace story that makes for well-timed pauses in the main story. And it provides the mandatory Runaway 3-D Setting for the video game to adapt.

There’s a funny scene of Marcie touting the right book for a book report to Charlie Brown. (Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.) This feeds into another funny scene of Charlie Brown working out the plot of War and Peace that’s enough of a laugh that only later did I wonder “did I just see that in a Peanuts cartoon?” There are many efforts to pander to the hardcore fan. (Who else could have any desire to see two seconds of Belle’s son?) I admit it’s a quirk of my personality that the more something panders to me as a fan the less I like the result.

So, I’m glad for the movie, and I think it’s worth seeing. It didn’t fall into the obvious pitfalls that could make a bad Peanuts film, although I don’t think it made a great one either. I could probably be more ambiguous, but only by trying.

The movie doesn’t clearly set itself in any particular time. It’s rather like the comic strip that way. Charlie Brown has a land-line telephone with a cord, that sits on a stand in the hallway, but then anyone might. None of the other characters are shown having cell phones or making reference to social media. But they don’t have reason to anyway. There is something naturally detached-from-time about the original comic strip, and it’s disorienting (in Happy New Year, Charlie Brown) to hear a character talk about a computer game. On the other hand, in the late years of the strip Lucy mentioned giving her e-mail address to Charlie Brown and that didn’t feel like it went against the nature of the universe.

The movie gets Peppermint Patty’s last name (Reichardt) correct. It gives Marcie a last name that I don’t think has any basis in the strip. The name went by too fast for me to remember what it was. It takes no stance on the question of whether Schroeder is the kid’s first or last name.

Nothing Is Happening In Apartment 3-G: Where Did My Spring Go?

Sorry to stand in the way of Apartment 3-G but I do have a mathematics blog to support. I’ve had things to say about the integers — the counting numbers — some of which may surprise you. And though I don’t figure to have another installment until tomorrow, I do regularly review the comic strips that mention mathematical topics. It’s my chance to talk about several of my favorite subjects together.

So, I have heard nothing in the past week to suggest that Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G is not doomed. (Their official blog has nothing to say, of course.) I would not be surprised if James Allen of Mark Trail was pushing to get King Features Syndicate to change its mind. It seems a long shot, but the syndicate does obviously make some of its decisions sentimentally. They run Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, after all.

I like Zippy, and I understand why it would make sense to have tried it out a generation ago. But have you ever seen it on an actual newspaper’s comics page, and if so, does it make sense existing even in the same medium as Over The Hedge or JumpStart? Yet it’s still running. That fact is logical only when you consider that reality has merged with Zippy the Pinhead. As the character said long ago, life is just a blur of Republicans and meat.

As a more obvious triumph of sentiment over economics, the syndicate still has Hy Eisman draw new installments of The Katzenjammer Kids. That can only make sense as a point of pride. I accept that the economics of Apartment 3-G are marginal. I would nevertheless like to try “good art, strong stories” a try. If nothing else, it would be happy if the strip were to close out on an improving year.

As for what the heck happened this week. I suspect the Just End The Story Already Fairies have gotten a deadline for when everything has to be wrapped up. And lacking other tools, they’ve used the climax of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and are tearing apart the very idea of perception. The backgrounds have gotten to be so generic that it’s really not possible to say they’re insides or outsides or wrong or anything, and by Friday they weren’t even there.

The Thursday and Friday installments suggest we are actually literally going to have an “it was all a dream” resolution. After the exhausting nothingness of this year’s non-story I’m willing to accept this. I haven’t been so willing to accept an “it was all a dream” resolution since I was three-quarters of the way through Stephen Baxter’s god-awful novel Titan. (Spoiler: the book was bad enough that it wasn’t even all a dream.)

'Margo, it's me, Greg. I told you I'd be back. We'll get through this and when ...' And then Margo opens her eyes and demands, 'Where did he go, Tommie?' 'Where did who go, Margo?'
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 29th of October, 2015. Greg who is not Eric is, possibly, the witness to Margo waking out of her coma. If Greg exists. Margo seems remarkably well-dressed as she demands to know where “he” went of Tommie, portrayed in the second panel by Penny Marshall immediately after being hit in the face with a football.

Dead fiancée Eric has most recently appeared on Monday, ordered by Tommie to go get some sleep. Tuesday saw the arrival of Greg, a bundle of strange backstory for Margo. While Margo was working as a publicist, Greg was her boyfriend and an actor who landed the part of James Bond. We’re to take it to be that James Bond. Margo and Greg broke up for the reason of there was some reason, probably. On Thursday Margo suddenly opened her eyes and demanded to know where “he” had gone. Friday Margo demanded to know where “the man who loved me” had gone. I would have thought Shulock would know better by this point than to use any pronouns. On the other hand, names don’t help much either because there is literally no guessing who Bolle is going to draw into any scene. Is she talking with Tommie? Eric? Greg? Why not Dost Mohammad Khan, founder of the modern Afghan state, at this point?

Margo demands 'the man who loves me, where is he, Tommie?' of Greg, while Margo insists she means 'the other one'.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 30th of October, 2015. Margo addresses Greg or possibly Eric as “Tommie”. Perhaps she is hallucinating, since she is wearing a stylish blazer while in her hospital bed. Unless the hospital bed was part of the hallucination and nothing happened the whole past year because it was all a dream.

The action this week reminds me of some single-season sitcom that blew my young mind. The last episode had the male lead going off to Other Land Somewhere, with a teary farewell scene at the airport, and he exits. Then the guy came back on camera and said he wasn’t going, because “it was cancelled”. “The flight?” “No, the series,” and the actors turn to the camera and wave bye. At that age I didn’t know you could do that, at least not outside shows that were built around talking to the audience, like Rocky and Bullwinkle. Maybe we are building up to the whole roster of jilted, abandoned, separated, and deceased boyfriends popping back in and saying their goodbyes in front of a blank wall. I hope it will be better than that.

Failing that, well, let’s just have the whole cast on stage to sing the Kinks’ “Where Did My Spring Go?” and call that an end.

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