What’s Going On In Judge Parker? Where did Randy Parker vanish to? March – June 2021


We don’t know! The past few months of Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker saw a crazification, where what had been a stable arrangement blew up. It’s too soon to say where Randy Parker, April Parker, and their daughter Charlotte are. Nor whether they’re going to run into Ted Forth and shock him by being The Chadwells.

This should catch you up to early June 2021. If you’re reading this after about September 2021, or any news about the strip breaks, I’ll try to have an essay at this link which might help you more.

Judge Parker.

14 March – 5 June 2021.

Charlotte Parker was seeing her mother walk by the house every day. This perturbed her father, Randy Parker, because April was off in Super Hyper Ultra Duper Spy Assassin World. It’s a dangerous world, one in which we’re likely to run into Norton, even though April Parker said on-screen that he’s dead. (Norton will never be dead.) Retired Judge Alan Parker asked Sam Driver to check. Is April Parker lurking around her (ex?)-husband’s home, and if so, why? And this leads to a day in which everything happens at once.

Deputy Mayor Stewart: 'It's just ... you had some properties reassessed at almost double their previous value. Properties that belonged to your opponent's supporters.' Mayor Sanderson: 'It's been a helluva real estate market the last year, Stewart! People had to expect to pay more property taxes.' Stewart: 'You also have Spencer Farms paying triple in taxes from last year.' Sanderson: 'They put a B-and-B on their property. Last year there was no business. But with the pandemic nearing a hopeful end, the value has changed.'
Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker for the 24th of March, 2021. Abbey Spencer has to spend some part of her day wondering why Mayor Sanderson isn’t always dealing with never-suspected evil half-siblings and ultra-hyper-super-duper assassins and drug-dealer starlets and stuff, right? Why does he get to just sit back and do Stephen Colbert Eyebrow Push-Ups at his staff?

The easy stuff, first. Cavelton’s reelected crazypants mayor Phil Sanderson sent out the new property taxes. They include punitive tax hikes on his political opponents, such as Abbey Spencer. This seems like something one could challenge in court. But Sanderson’s already looking ahead to his third term in office. Also to changing the town laws so he can serve a third term. Deputy Mayor Stewart, who I bet has a second name, takes this news with a sequence of faces of pouty concern.

[ While on a stakeout, Sam gets a call from ... ] Sam: 'Neddy! That's wonderful news!' Neddy: 'I KNOW! I can't believe Ronnie's and my show is actually going to series! IT WILL ACTUALLY BE STREAMING FOR ACTUAL PEOPLE TO SEE!' Sam: 'Which channel?' Neddy ;'A new streaming service called Plus+!' (Silent penultimate panel.) Sam: 'Please excuse the silence, but I wasn't sure if you were joking with that name or ... ' Neddy: 'I know. I can't even find the app on Roku. But who cares?!? IT'S ALL HAPPENING!!!'
Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker for the 4th of April, 2021. “It’s all happening”; hold that thought.

Second, and happy news: Neddy Spencer and Ronnie Huerta’s series got picked up! The show is based on what they imagine the April Parker/Godiva Danube relationship was like. It’s to run on a streaming service that exists in the minds of its investors. Still, a show credit is a show credit. They call that in to home as everything else explodes.

Now the explosions. Almost all the past three months of Judge Parker took place over a single day. Sam Driver, staking out Randy’s home, sees who he thinks is April Parker. He chases her, until a bicyclist accidentally collides with him. The bicyclist has nothing to do with anything and is happy to leave when the woman draws a knife on him. The woman is not April Parker. She’s Rogue Agent Strand, former partner to Norton and a woman who looks rather like April.

[ As an unconscious Sam lies on the street ... Randy wants the full truth ... ] Randy Parker: 'How did you just happen to be here the moment I realized 'Agent Strand' was outside my house? The moment Sam showed up?' April: 'I ... I still have you tapped. I have everyone tapped. I've been tracking the CIA's movements for months.'
Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker for the 3rd of May, 2021. “Really? You have Randy Parker and the CIA tapped?” ponders The Phantom, pausing between his jobs as protector and fair arbiter of the Bangallan natives, and the Unknown Commander of the Jungle Patrol, and the globetrotting terrorist-fighting super-vigilante who answers letters sent to Box 7, Mawitaan. “That’s a lot of cognitive overhead you’re putting on yourself there. Is that really a plausible workload for a human being? Really?”

Meanwhile inside Randy’s house is April Parker. She and Randy have a furious argument about how this does too make sense. April’s thesis is that the CIA is going to capture her by killing Randy and kidnapping Charlotte. Strand, who needs back in the CIA Good Graces file, is there to provide credible sightings of April Parker. April can then be framed for the murder of Randy and kidnapping of Charlotte. And this would leave April with no contact with her former life. Unless she turned herself in and revealed everything she’s learned in her rogue super-agent days. The only way for Randy to live, and Charlotte to be free, is to abandon their lives now and join April on the super-assassin circuit.

It’s a lot to swallow. And Randy’s under a lot of pressure. Like, everybody in the world is calling him at once. You tried calling him. If I have two phone calls in a day I’m useless until next Tuesday. The pressure keeps up. “They” get cited as closing in. April insists they must go now. Here the fact that story comics only get two or three panels a day fights the drama. This whole scene takes a month and a half of reader time to finish. It allows for unwanted giggles about April’s insistence they don’t have much time. In-universe, yes. I think you could do Randy and April’s whole scene in as little as five minutes. But, especially with the cutaways to everyone calling or driving to the scene? It was hard to feel the rush day-by-day.

Randy: 'Why ... why would they take Charlotte?' April: 'As leverage to draw me out! They want me dead, but they want my intel on others, too. So ... listen ... ' Randy: 'What?' April: 'I don't hear a sound coming from Charlotte's room.'
Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker for the 6th of May, 2021. Charlotte’s okay! She’s just scared by all this arguing about whether the plot makes sense so she hid a while. Nothing to worry about.

Sam Driver recovers consciousness and races back to Randy’s house. He and Abbey Spencer converge inside, in time to be surrounded by police. Who called them? Unknown. (I’d guess the bicyclist, if it isn’t someone in on the conspiracy.) Where are Randy and April and Charlotte? Unknown. Randy gave his father a quick choking good-bye call and left behind … everything.

The 31st of May saw another several-month time jump, a common Marciuliano response to having crazyfied the story. Randy and Charlotte and April Parker are all missing still. The police and the CIA questioned Sam Driver and everybody they could find. But none of them know anything about anything. That’s about where we readers stand too. (Among other things we don’t know whether anyone in authority believes Sam and all know nothing.) And Sam’s feeling guilty about failing Alan Parker.

How does this all develop? If the pattern follows, we’ll see a couple weeks of rationalizing and stepping back from the craziest parts of what just happened. I can’t guess whether that involves showing Randy and Charlotte Parker. Or showing everyone else reacting to their absence.

Next Week!

Roy Thomas and Larry Leiber’s The Amazing Spider-Man draws nearer to the end of my coverage, but does so in style. By “in style” I mean “with Rocket Raccoon mocking Peter Parker a lot”. Hope to see you next week, True Believers!

What’s Going On In Judge Parker? Is Sophie Parker running away from home? October 2019 – January 2020


So first, the most astounding news about Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker: Norton has not appeared in the past three months. Almost four months, now, unless there’s a surprise coming in Sunday’s strip. Anyway, all my Judge Parker essays should be at this link, including whatever plot recaps I write after (likely) April 2020. If it’s much past mid-January 2020 when you read this, you might get a more useful plot recap there. Also, Sophie has not yet run away, and has made statements to imply she’s not. But the groundwork is there.

Judge Parker.

27 October 2019 – 19 January 2020.

Neddy Parker and Ronnie Huerta finally got a call back on their screenplay, last I checked in. It’s based on the super-hyper-ultra-duper-spy nonsense of April Parker, who helped them out, at the point of a gun. This seems harsh, but it is the most efficient way to get someone to actually write. Ellen Nielson, tech-billionaire-daughter with an indie movie studio, wants a meeting.

Neddy: 'I don't believe this is happening!' Ronnie: 'Is this the life of a rich white person? Just when you hit an obstacle someone comes in to possibly offer you even more money?' Neddy: 'I ... I wouldn't put it like that!' Ronnie: 'Don't get me wrong! This is one time I'm happy for all your advantages because we're in it together!'
Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker for the 1st of November, 2019. Among the traits of Marciuliano’s tenure on Judge Parker is self-awareness of his writing styles and of the assumptions built into the strip. Under Woody Wilson people were going crazy throwing money at the Parker-Spencer clan, to the point that I am not sure if it wasn’t a running joke.

Back in Cavelton, Sophie Parker finally talks some with Honey Ballinger. She’s one of the classmates and bandmates from that bizarre kidnapping by Sophie’s mother’s half-sister. Honey had escaped the kidnappers who got Sophie and the rest of the band. They’re both having trouble thinking college or anything makes any sense. But they’re able to start trying to be friends. They had not got along so well before the kidnapping and can’t think of a reason why, now.

Also in Cavelton: Abbey’s notion of running a little bed-and-breakfast has proved unworkable. A practical one involves renovating the horse barns into a small hotel. I have not been able to figure what they’re doing with the horses. (Also I have recently seen a bed-and-breakfast which was not made of someone’s oversized home, or made to look like one. So while I don’t get a bed-and-breakfast that seems like it’s just a hotel, I can’t say it’s wrong.) This forces Sam Driver out of his barn office. But he thinks it might be good for him to have an office somewhere near the people who have law work that needs doing off-panel. Rents are steep; turns out Cavelton is gentrifying out from under everyone. Anyway, the barn renovations get under way, then stop, then cost more. It’s a process that makes you wonder if Francesco Marciuliano has been dealing with home renovations himself lately. Then you remember home renovations was a storyline in Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe’s Sally Forth last year. So you stop wondering. Then you remember in the Sally Forth story the work was done as scheduled and without surprise charges or anything. So you wonder again. Look, if you’re not using your creative expression to vent about stuff that bothers you, what are you doing?

Neddy: 'So you want to hire us as story consultants for the series?' Nielson: 'You know the relationships between the character. For example, what would April say about our take on all this?' Neddy: 'She'd kill us for straying from her intended goal for this script.' Ronnie :''Us'? I barely know her! I mean I know a lot about her! I have valuable insight into her character, too!' Nielson: 'See, it's that friendship/fear angle that will sell this!'
Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker for the 29th of November, 2019. Thing is, Nielson is not wrong. … So, in the early 50s Isaac Asimov wrote a couple novels set in the Galactic Empire. And in each of them, there’s a moment in which the Antagonist reviews what he knows about what the Protagonists are doing and concludes, it doesn’t make sense. He goes on to construct an alternate plot, one that fits the facts, and one that does make sense by his lights. And the thing is, it makes more sense by the reader’s lights too. It’s a curious bit of self-commentary and premise deconstruction there, as here.

Sophie and Honey get together and start playing a little music. Sophie talks of Neddy’s screenwriting dream and how great that’s going. And how is it going? Ellen Nielson thinks their screenplay is a disaster, but there’s a good idea in it. Nielson sees it as a miniseries, with them as story consultants. Neddy and Ronnie see themselves getting murdered by April for straying from their directions. So that’s a downside. But, hey, it’s a sold credit. It’ll be something great for them to talk about over Christmas with the rest of the Parker-Spencer-etc family.

[ Ronnie and Neddy bring their luggage to the guest cottage. ] Ronnie: 'Meant to ask. Marie, back at the main house, isn't she ... ' Neddy: 'Yeah, the one who was accused of murdering her husband after their wedding until they found out he had faked his own death, joined the mob, had his old business partner murdered, and tried to stalk Marie.' Ronnie: 'I was going to say isn't she the one who helped look after you when you were younger, but wow.' Neddy: 'Ask me about anyone in this house and you'll probably wind up with the same reaction.'
Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker for the 14th of December, 2019. “I mean, especially since Marciuliano took over the writing but, yeah, this strip has been going on since, like, Alben Barkley was vice president so there’s a lot of backstory here.”

As the barn renovations embody the sunk-cost fallacy everyone gathers for Christmas. Neddy’s happy to introduce Ronnie to everyone. And to see everyone. Sophie is the happiest that any human being has ever been that Neddy’s back. Sophie spills her plan to skip college for a year or two and figure stuff out. Ronnie had done something similar, leaving college after a few semesters. Sophie latches onto this with an eagerness that Ronnie wisely tries to temper.

With Neddy’s support, Sophie explains to her parents that she won’t be going to college right after high school. This goes well, for soap-strip readers, because it’s a nice messy disaster. While Abbey fumes about Sophie’s irrationality, Sophie packs to run away to Los Angeles and live with Neddy. Neddy tries to talk her way, way back from this. She explains Abbey’s fears and needs, and also that Neddy’s actually only using Ronnie’s apartment so there’s not really a place for her.

Meanwhile, Judge (ret) Alan Parker is thinking of running for mayor. Being in prison has let him recognize the carceral state as the great threat to society it is. And yes, the mayor of Cavelton has limited ability to effect the prison abolition we need. But he can do something. And he’s noticed the failings in the social support network. He’s recognized how the gentrification of Cavelton is hurting the people who made their lives in the town. He’s got a flipping account on Mastodon. There’s a 35% chance the words “fully-automated luxury gay space communism” have passed his lips within the past four weeks. The plan is daft, and everyone tells Parker it is. Among other things, he was in jail to about three months ago for helping his son-in-law fake his death. He only got out because said son-in-law blackmailed-or-worse a judge. He promises to at least not run for public office without talking with his son.

Alan Parker: 'My time in prison changed me. And now that I'm out I can see how our town is changing, not for the better. Rents are going up. People are being forced out by expensive condos and specialty shops. Social programs are being cut. This town is making its money and losing the people who made it.'
Francesco Marciuliano and Mike Manley’s Judge Parker for the 16th of January, 2020. Alan, you were in jail for like eight days, relax a little. … Also, jeez, that line about Alben Barkley really shows why I am such a niche writer, doesn’t it? You know, Barkley was the vice-president for whom the nickname “Veep” was coined. When Nixon took his office he didn’t want to appropriate his predecessor’s nickname. Also, Nixon lived his entire life without ever having a moment of whimsy or joy. I CAN’T STOP MYSELF FROM WRITING LIKE THIS. SEND HELP.

And this is where we are. It’s been three months of developing the running stories, without any major crazy new developments. It’s been almost tranquil, compared to the cycles of blowing things up and then retrenching. It’s still daft that Alan Parker thinks running for mayor would be a good idea.

Next Week!

Has The Amazing Spider-Man “returned” with some “great new stories and art” yet?’ Well, as of today it’s still reruns of Roy Thomas and Alex Saviuk’s stories from a couple years back, but I’ll recap that if there’s no breaking news there. Also, I’ve got comic strips to discuss on my mathematics blog. You might like that too. I do.

What’s Going On With Judge Parker?


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


So, you know the difference between Rex Morgan, M.D. and Judge Parker? Yeah, me neither. I’m not meaning to be snarky here. It’s just both story comics are about people who nominally have exciting professional jobs but never get around to doing those jobs because they’re busy having strangers throw money and valuable prizes at them. They were even both created by Nicholas P Dallis (in 1952 and 1948, respectively). There’s a lot in common. That changed in a major way in 2016.

Judge Parker

So a few years ago Alan Parker retired and kicked out a book based on one of his adventures as the comic’s original title character. (His son’s taken over the judgeship, and nominally heads the comic.) Writing’s a common second job for comic strip characters. And his book was fabulously successful. It’s a common hazard for comic strip characters. Mike Patterson of For Better Or For Worse had similar success. Adam of Adam @ Home is on the track for that right now. Even Tom Batiuk couldn’t keep his Funky Winkerbean character-author, Les Moore, from being a wildly successful author forever. Chris Browne, heir to the Hi and Lois/Hagar the Horrible fortune, had a comic strip Raising Duncan that was all about a married couple of wildly successful mystery authors.

The thing is, even by comic strip character standards, Alan Parker’s book was wildly popular. Everyone loved it. People recognized him from his dust jacket. An illegal-arms merchant backed off whatever he was up to because he was so impressed by the book. Parker’s book sold to the movies, and the movies wanted Alan himself to write the script. For lots more money. The recreation director of the cruise ship he was on loved the book and was so excited about a movie deal she showed him how to install script-writing software on his computer. And got him started on writing a script everyone agreed was just the best script ever.

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

It’s not just that the book succeeded. It’s that the universe arranged for everyone in the world to love the book. Almost everyone. There was an English professor, allegedly a professor at Princeton and Yale, who wrote a review panning it. Parker tracked her down and publicly berated her, and her husband agreed with Parker. The book was just that good. And that’s how Judge Parker built itself up through to summer of last year.

A bit of success is fine. First-time authors, high school garage bands, start-up businesses fail all the time. Even more often they get caught in that mire where they aren’t succeeding, but they’re also not failing clearly enough to walk away from. Surely part of the fun in reading stories about them is the stories in which they manage to succeed. It’s the wildly undeserved success that made the comic an ironic-read masterpiece, topping even Rex Morgan, M.D.. Or just infuriating. If you’ve ever known a high school band trying to do a gig, you’re annoyed by the idea Sophie Spencer should be able to demand a hundred dollars of the band’s whole take for the night in exchange for her deigning to be the merch girl. If you know anything about business you find something annoying in Neddy Spencer starting her clothing line by pressuring the country-music star head of an aerospace company to giving her a newly-completed plant and hiring a bunch of retired textile workers who’ll be cheap because they can use Medicaid instead of getting paid health benefits. Plus there’s some crazy stuff about international espionage, the kind that thinks it’s all sleek and awesome and glamorous rather than the shabby material that gets documented in books with titles like Legacy Of Shame: Failures Of The Intelligence Community And Their Disastrous Consequences In [ Your Fiasco Here ]. At some point it looks like a satire of the wish-fulfillment dreams of a creative person.

(I may be getting some of the characters’ last names wrong. There’s a lot of mixing of the Parker, Spencer, and Driver families and I do lose track. There’s what has historically been The Chosen Family; call them what you will.)

So that’s where things sat when the strip’s longtime writer Woody Wilson turned things over, in August, to Francesco Marciuliano. I expected Marciuliano to do well. He’s been writing Sally Forth all this century and become the prime example of how a comic’s original author is not always the best person to produce it. (He showcases that, and often writes about it, over on his WordPress blog, where he also shares his web comic.) I’d expected he would tamp down or minimize the stuff that could be brought back to realistic, and quietly not mention again the stuff that was just too much.

He hasn’t quite. He took the quite good cliffhanger, one literally drawn from the days of cliffhangers, that Wilson left him: Sophie and her band driving back from a gig, a little drunk and a lot exhausted, on a precarious mountain road in the rain, encountering a distracted truck driver who’s a little too slow to dodge them, and the kids go tumbling over the edge. Solid story stuff. You can see all kinds of potential here, not least to dial back the worst excesses of Sophie’s dictatorial powers over the band she forced herself into.

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

Marciuliano went crazy instead. The truck driver wasn’t merely distracted. He was driving illicitly, with a satchel full of money, and apparently stalking a call-in radio show host. Possibly he was carrying out a hit on the kids. The crashed car went missing. The kids, except one — not Sophie — went missing. For months. The intimation is that some of the shadowier figures who’re in the Parker orbit wanted to send them a warning, but things got messier than even they imagined. You know, the way a good crime-suspense novel will have brilliant plans executed by people not quite brilliant enough and then all sorts of people are trying desperately to patch enough together to get out of the way.

It’s a daring strategy. Ambitious. Exciting. In the immediate aftermath of the change the results were particularly suspenseful. Marciuliano, probably trained by Sally Forth out of the story-strip habit of over-explaining points, had enough stuff happen that it could be confusing. (I did see Comics Curmudgeon commenters complaining about things that had already been addressed in the text.) But it felt revolutionary. It reached that point story strips rarely achieve. There wasn’t any fair guessing what the next day’s installment might bring.

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

Some other pieces of the old excesses were resolved no less dramatically. Marciuliano ended the quagmire of the ever-less-plausible clothing-factory storyline by throwing it into a quagmire. A sinkhole opened underneath the factory, taking the entire thing down on the opening day for the project, sinking it beneath the recriminations and accusations of fraud and misconduct that should have kept the idea from starting. And I appreciated the dramatic irony that so much utterly wrong behavior on the main characters’ parts could finally be undone by something that was not in any way their fault. (I mean, what kind of person figures “we should hire the elderly because they’ll be so happy to get any work we can make them cheat for their medical care”? I mean any person who should be allowed into civilization.)

And others are just getting tamped down mercifully. Alan Parker’s movie has fallen into that state where everybody’s happy to have meetings but nothing ever happens. He’s eager to write another book. He’s got one sentence. He doesn’t like it. That is, sad to say, more like what really happens.

Is it successful? I say yes. I say it’s the biggest turnaround in story comics since Dick Tracy stopped being incompetent. The experience reminds me of the time Andy Richter mentioned how he and his wife had meant to go bowling ironically, “but we ended up having actual fun”.

Have I got doubts? Well, sure. I always have doubts. The main doubt is that September through December tossed a lot of new pieces and plot ideas into the air. There’ve been a lot of questions raised about what’s going on, and why, and how they’re trying to do whatever they’re up to. Questions are the relatively easy part of writing. The trick is getting a resolution that makes any sense. Bonus points if it makes sense when you go back and read the start of the story again.

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

Will that happen? I don’t know. That’s Marciuliano’s problem. I just have to have a reaction to it. He’s got my attention. Of the story strips going on right now that’s the one I’d recommend giving yours.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

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

97

Comic Strips Worth Reading: Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe’s _Sally Forth_


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.

``Another autumn, another six hours lost in a corn maze.'' ``We just need a better vantage point. What do you see, Hil?'' ``THRESHER!!!''
Francesco Marciuliano and Craig MacIntosh’s Sally Forth for the 3rd of September, 2008. Because the memory of this particular strip has caused me to giggle occasionally for eight years now.

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.

Hilary and Ted Forth compete to be first with Mother's Day Breakfast in Bed. It ends, as such competitions will, with pancakes in the bed and give different types of cheeses on the stairs.
Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe’s Sally Forth for the 8th of May, 2016 (Mother’s Day). Yes, it’s wordy. But I make out eight distinct punch lines in six panels. Your count may vary. Note by the way Hilary’s quietly offended look in the first panel, bottom row.

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.

Ted and Sally Forth talk: Sally realizes that she's taken on a taskmaster role in their relationship while Ted plays the manchild and that isn't satisfying anymore. The original is rather wordier than that.
Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe’s Sally Forth for the 7th of August, 2016. It’s again wordy but it’s also worth the read. The “wrong Hamilton musical” here refers to a storyline from April in which it turned out Ted bought scalped tickets to a musical about the founding of Hamilton Beach. Which will happen.

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.

He promises, “Yes, there will be a car crash. And yes, the survivors will eat the dead. After all [ … ] it may be minutes before the band is found.” And he’s aware of the storytelling challenges: “If the car crashes then people will say, `I knew it.’ If the car doesn’t crash then people will say, `I knew it. Nothing bad ever happens to these characters’.” I am optimistic about all this.

Nothing Is Happening In Apartment 3-G: Has Apartment 3-G Been Cancelled?


Before chatting about Apartment 3-G, may I remind you that I regularly talk about comic strips over on my mathematics blog? In this series I explain mathematically-themed comic strips, which lets me talk about monkeys a lot more than you might have guessed. I’ve also been doing a sequence of essays about the kinds of sets mathematicians see a lot. It’ll completely revolutionize your sense of small talk.


On to Aparment 3-G. Let me first get this out of the way. From Sunday’s recap strip:

'It's time we took a walk outside', says Martin, outside.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 18th of October, 2015. Honestly. Look at that first panel.

I mean, honestly. Let’s look at that first panel again:

'Time we took a walk outside', says Martin, 'At the E.R.' that has a bush and a clear blue sky in it.
Seriously, this is the first panel of a Sunday Apartment 3-G. At some point it crosses the dividing line between sloppiness and sabotage.

RrrrrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRrrrrrgh.

So. I trust you’re all here because you heard the rumor. According to Joe McQuaid’s Publisher’s Notes column at the Manchester (New Hampshire) Union-Leader — a newspaper that dropped the strip earlier this year, citing its catastrophic decline — Apartment 3-G is to be cancelled later this year.

It’s a plausible enough rumor. No story strip is in good shape, reader-wise, and few of them are in creatively good shape. Mike Staton and Joe Curtis’s Dick Tracy is producing good, energetic stories, but they’re all built on fandom-pandering and nostalgia. (The current storyline appears to be some kind of Mirror Universe/Earth-3 plot. This lets them pull out every character that got killed off in the 40s back on-screen, to be killed again.) James Allen’s produced several exciting and well-paced stories at Mark Trail, although they’re all based on nature trying to kill us. This makes for some rollicking adventures but seems off-message.

I can’t find confirmation, though. All the reporting on this seems to be based on McQuaid’s comment. And in the same column McQuaid talks about having lunch with “my friend, The Donald” and how they totally should have played nine holes of golf like he said even though The Donald mistakenly thought the weather would be too bad. So McQuaid deserves to be wrong, and punched.

Frank Bolle’s web site is obviously derelict. Its latest news announces Bolle’s upcoming appearance at San Diego Comic-Con for July 2004. Margaret Shulock’s blog was last updated in June of 2012, with a post that she was back, she thinks. Comics Kingdom’s News Around The Kingdom blog today has nothing to say about the strip one way or another, even though the strip’s fate is the biggest news about a King Features Syndicate comic strip property this week. Syndicated comic strip fans live in a weird space.

But there is the blood in the water. I can’t think of any comic-strip cancellation rumor from the past five years that turned out to be wrong, with the possible exception of Dick Tracy. (I forget just what rumors were running at the end of Dick Locher’s tenure on it.) Still, apparently James Allen is pitching himself as a new artist, possibly new writer, for Apartment 3-G to King Features. (I say apparently because he posted this on Facebook, in an account not available to folks like me that happen not to be on Facebook. I’m inferring its content from what other people say about his posting.) I do not know how his revitalization of Mark Trail has gone financially. If good work were rewarded, the strip would be holding its own or growing in subscribers again, and we would live in a world different to this one.

And many have noted that the occasional “flash forward” week done that Francesco Marciuliano writes for Sally Forth. These depict Hilary Forth and her friends Faye and Nona ten years in the future, as a trio of women sharing an apartment while struggling as young women in The City. The resemblance is uncanny. Coincidence? Perhaps, although Staton and Curtis did write and draw a Dick Tracy adventure with the serial numbers filed off to show what the comic strip could be like, with fresh writing and solid art. Why not Marciuliano and Allen? (I have no information to suggest Marciuliano is interested. The original flash-forward read as a simple lark, and the premise is enough to sustain revisiting it now and then.)

Future Hilary Forth listens to Nona's advice not to give up on her writing career, and takes it. Jetpacks are mentioned.
Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe’s Sally Forth for the 16th of October, 2015. This is part of a flash forward sequence depicting Hilary and her friends in the future, a trio of young women making it in The City.

I would like to think so. If Bolle and Shulock aren’t interested in, or aren’t able to, carry on the strip then I would like it to be in enthusiastic hands. Soap opera syndicated comic strips should be good, and the people who like reading them should have them available. And I would sincerely like to see more soap opera strips be good enough that they don’t support snarky, ironic readership. It’s not a law of nature that the story strips have to be bad. I hope that if Shulock or Bolle are leaving the strip then King Features Syndicate will find interested talent who can give us interesting, well-drawn stories.

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