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