When I last talked about Mark Trail he was off on a remote Hawai’ian atoll, there to document an invasive species of ant that was bothering the local birds. While human-induced carelessness will create ecological problems nature has its ways of restoring the balance. In this case, nature chose to go with “titanic volcano explosion that destroys the island, the invasive ants, and everything else on it”. Nature has a real problem figuring out the appropriate scale for its responses. This by the way isn’t the first time in James Allen’s tenure as Mark Trail author-and-artist that an invasive species has been solved by fire. Some kind of beetle boring into woods was solved by a particularly well-placed bit of semi-controlled wildfire.
Anyway, the volcano exploded a lot, and then exploded some more, and then went on exploding to the point that some readers got a bit cranky wondering if there was even any island left to explode. It reads better if you look at a week’s worth of strips at once, which Comics Kingdom’s web site makes easy to do, at least if you have a paid subscription. Once again, I recommend subscriptions to both Comics Kingdom and to GoComics if you like newspaper-grade syndicated comic strips. Both web sites do their jobs very well.
With the island escaped, Mark Trail observed the ritual of cleansing between storylines: eating pancakes while sharing stilted dialogue and promising his son Rusty that they’ll go fishing someday.
Meanwhile, Lee Hunter, whom I don’t know anything about either, arrives in West Africa for a licensed safari hunt. In the West African village of Village, where all the lionesses and cubs have been shipped off to zoos, there’s an elderly male that’s turned human-eater. Possibly from loneliness; he’d hardly be the first person to go a little crazy at work because of an unsatisfying home life.
As she arrives she bumps into Chris, nicknamed Dirty, a guy who’d been in some Mark Trail story a couple years ago when the strip was all about poacher smuggling. He’s on his way to the United States, and we haven’t seen Lee Hunter again since that encounter. I don’t have any guess whether Village is going to have anything to do with the current storyline, or whether James Allen is setting up a future storyline, or whether the strip just wanted to put in a good word for licensed exotic-animal hunting. (It feels out of character for Mark Trail, but it is a difficult question of ethics, and a character is under no obligation to make choices that even the author thinks correct. A character is only obliged to make choices that the author thinks credible for the story.)
That’s also just about all we’ve seen from Chris Dirty, too. Since that airport encounter Mark Trail’s been talking about how his old buddy Johnny Lone Elk spotted a pair of gray wolves and some cougar tracks at the Cheyenne River Reservation. Also evidence of a bear, which is quite exciting stuff when Mark was just thinking about getting in on some black-footed-ferret and prairie dog census work. Cherry Trail mentioned that it isn’t tornado season, so we can look forward to a tornado catching on fire and blowing up in the near future.
Cherry’s also mentioned some water park incident that I don’t know anything about. Trusting that it’s something that really happened back when Jack Elrod was writing and drawing the strip I’m going to suppose that someone was smuggling otters down the lazy river. I have no further information about this incident.
Animals or other natural phenomena featured on Sundays recently have included:
The Pink Frogmouth, 12 March 2017
Toucans, 5 March 2017
The Western Pacific Biotwang (whale noise), 26 February 2017
Flying Lemurs, 19 February 2017
Amethyst, 12 February 2017
This Leaf-Shaped Spider In Yunnan, China, 5 February 2017
Hooded Nudibranches, 29 January 2017
New Zealand Keas, 22 January 2017
Spiders and Giraffe Assassin Bugs, 15 January 2017
Good news for bats affected with white-nose syndrome, 8 January 2017
Pyrosomes (which are these giant glowing sea-dwelling worms so don’t say I didn’t warn you), 1 January 2017
Blue Nawab caterpillars, 18 December 2016
Frog rescue and this amphibian-threatening fungus, 11 December 2016
The Great Blue Hole off the coast of Belize, 4 December 2016
Dodder Vine, 27 November 2016
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index fell five points when someone saw a tweet talking about a Victorian epidemic of “poisonous socks” and thought we ought to be spending more time hiding under furniture about this.
So, the guy did not get eaten by a hyena. I apologize for the mistake, but it was after all only my best projection as to where the story was going. The fellow was a new Tracy-esque villain named Selfy Narcisse, whose gimmick was that he was always taking selfies. They can’t all be The Pouch.
Narcisse had been embezzling campaign donations to Representative Lois Bellowthon (herself proposing some anti-Lunar-people legislation); he was fleeing with a literal satchel of cash after poisoning the finally-wise-to-him Congressman. Yes, he used his selfie stick to inject the poison, so at least that keeps on-theme. He took refuge in the zoo where he had a friend willing to disguise him as a zoo keeper, which is a thing that happens in real big-city zoos.
His cover fell apart when his hat fell off for a moment and zoogoers put pictures that happened to have him in frame on social media. So again, that’s good work by Mike Staton and Joe Curtis in being on-theme. His friend accidentally drank Narcisse’s poison stash, thinking it alcohol. Narcisse tasers Tracy and drags him into the water buffalo pen. One of the water buffalo, annoyed by the villain’s selfie-taking, gored Narcisse, but was scared away from Tracy when his Wrist Wizard handheld computer’s battery exploded. Yes, I wrote that sentence, and you read it. Go back and read it again until you believe it.
The Spirit’s in town because one Perenelle Flammel is auctioning off the immortality formula that’s kept her from dying since the 14th century. The auction brings together The Spirit, Dick Tracy‘s own super-science-industrialist Diet Smith, Oliver Warbucks (as Staton and Curtis are fostering the orphaned Annie cast), Mister Carrion (whom Wikipedia tells me is one of The Spirit’s recurring villains, and whom the story revealed to be an agent for The Octopus, which Wikipedia says is another of The Spirit’s recurring villains), and the Dragon Lady (allowed into the story via special passport issued by Terry and the Pirates). The preliminary auction helps convince bidders the formula might be legitimate because it checks out with a Doc Savage reference. Low-level con men Brush and Kitchen attempt to rob the preliminary auction’s treasury but get easily caught by Tracy and Spirit. And Tracy, doing some actual detective work for once, finds that Carrion brought cash from a bank robbery, so he’s out of the plot or so we think.
And then Flammel turned up dead, because the immortality serum doesn’t protect you against strangulation. Flammel’s bodyguard, recurring Tracy villain Doubleup, seems a poor suspect as he was being paid in Scarlett Sting comic books, so we’re on to Flammel’s valet and then check out anyone else who’s been in the story.
In miscellaneous plot threads, since there’s a lot of those planted in spaces between the main action: Sam Catchem’s wife has finished chemotherapy and been declared cancer-free. A crime boss name of Posie Ermine noticed Mysta Chimera, who had been his daughter Mindy before the mad science treatment that destroyed her memory and made her into a synthetic Moon Maid replica. He crashed his car into hers to try to recover her. This didn’t get him permanently back in her life, but he’s undeterred. I’m sympathetic to Posie Ermine here and not even being snarky about that. There’s some deeply emotionally messy stuff going on here.
Somewhere deep in an Antarctic valley someone who appears to be a Lunarian pledges to investigate “the halfling”, “my granddaughter”, which has to be Mysta Chimera. This matches a couple references in October with Mysta asking Honey Moon Tracy if she’s heard any telepathic contacts from anybody else. Tracy and the Spirit have been trading stories including The Spirit mentioning how he went to the Moon too. I think that’s all the stuff that sounds like threads ready to go somewhere, but for all I know that Pogo reference for the Christmas strip is setting up a scene late this year when Albert Alligator mistakenly swallows Gidney and Cloyd. We’ll see.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
While the Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose another three points during trading nobody trusts the result and everybody is walking gingerly on the trading floor lest they tip something over.
I, too, thought I was done with story strips. And then I realized I’d forgot one. And what a one to forget: it’s, I believe, the oldest syndicated comic strip that isn’t in perpetual reruns. Coming to us from the 24th of November, 1918, it’s …
If you know anything about Gasoline Alley you don’t need me to tell you anything about Gasoline Alley. It’s one of those comic strips that’s been around forever even though the last child to grow up enthusiastically reading it went on to fight in King Philip’s War. Have to admit, a someone who only started paying attention to it in adulthood, the kids are missing something. That something is a lot of old-time radio references. I honestly wonder how artist/writer Jim Scancarelli wasn’t hired to draw the Lum and Abner comic strip.
So the comic strip is a slice-of-life serial comic. Its big gimmick, and the thing that’s let it last nearly a century, was the day in 1922 when protagonist Walt Wallet discovered the orphan Skeezix on his doorstep. Since then most of the characters in the strip have aged more or less in real time. People get born, they grow up, they move off, they move back, they marry, they have careers, they bring new people into the strip, they retire. The whole cast is impossibly vast and interconnected in ways that only Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury compares to.
Walt Wallet is still around, even though the progression of time makes him something like 115 years old. I imagine Scancarelli is a little too sentimental to kill the comic’s original star, even if there have been like four whole generations of plausible lead characters since then. He doesn’t even have to kill Walt. Scancarelli embraces a bit of magic whimsy in the comic (a lot, really), and one of the conceits is the Old Comics Home. It’s the boarding house for all the characters from the classic old comic strips. They have a visit every year or so. I can’t imagine anyone objecting if Walt, and maybe Skeezix too, were to pay their annual visit to Mutt and Jeff and Buster Brown and Smokey Stover or whoever and just … not come back.
But Walt Wallet does come back. And the current storyline, begun the 16th of January, stars him. He’s inspired by a newspaper advertisement offering “big bucks for your inventions”. After several days sleeping on it he has an inspiration. It’s a combination freezer-fridge-stove-grill-microwave-TV, the sort of thing you might create as a dubiously practical all-in-one contraption for a 60s sitcom. Wallet admits he got the idea from thinking about how in Dick Tracy the B.O. Plenty clan had a stove with a built-in TV set. I don’t know that this actually happened, but I believe it. Scancarelli shows a love for this particular kind of pop culture. He is not so reference-crazy as the actual current staff of Dick Tracy, but then neither is the writing staff of Family Guy. Still, he could hold his own in a highly referential conversation with them.
Wallet’s idea underwhelms Skeezix and his nurse. But he attracts the attention of Gasoline Alley TV’s Shark Bait. So he goes to the TV studio to pitch his idea — or really the novelty of a 115-year-old inventor — to the jury of millionaire investors. He gets to the studio and meets, who else but Frank Nelson.
You know Frank Nelson. OK, you know that guy on The Simpsons who goes YYYyyyyyyyyeeeeeess? That’s Frank Nelson they’re impersonating there. He appeared in a lot of Jack Benny Program episodes as the clerk or ticket-taker or information desk guy or anyone at all that Benny would have to get information from. And he’d instead get “YYYyyyyyyyyeeeeeess” and “OOooOOOoooh” and insults. This may sound like thin stuff, but, again: character actor. And done for one or two minutes a week, two weeks a month, the character doesn’t exactly get old. It gets familiar, the way a fun running gag does. Frank Nelson’s reappeared in Gasoline Alley to torment Walt Wallet because, like I said, Jim Scancarelli’s an old-time radio fan. The comic probably reads fine if you have no idea what’s being referred to here. If you know how the lines should be read, I imagine they’re funnier.
But I don’t know what it reads like to someone who doesn’t get the references. Scancarelli likes them, and will keep making them. Even if they’re a little baffling. A while back he introduced Molly Ballou, radio reporter. Who’s carefully introduced as the sister to Wally Ballou, famously mis-cued reporter for Bob and Ray. And shortly after that he introduced Polly Ballou, Wally and Molly’s other sister. I understand wanting to do a little Bob and Ray fanfic because who would not? And it’s simple professionalism to do it with your own character, because that way, if you screw up nobody’s qualified to tell you you’re wrong. (Frank Nelson’s appearances have, I believe, avoided coming right out and naming him, allowing for some deniability if the character goes completely wrong. At the cost of confusing people who realize there’s a reference to something here that they don’t have enough stuff to Google.)
But why make them Wally Ballou’s improbably young-looking sisters? In the comic strip that defined “comic strip that passes more or less in real time”? Why not make them his daughters, or granddaughters? And why Molly and Polly, when it seems like one would do? Maybe it’s pure self-indulgence. As cartoonist self-indulgences go this seems quite tolerable to me. Or maybe I just like that I get the references.
So, as of this week, Walt Wallet’s gotten onto Shark Bait. It’s going out live because Gasoline Alley TV just does that. You can roll with it or you can read something else, okay? There’s an odd bit of confusion in the show’s opening about whether the jury is a panel of millionaires or billionaires and that might be a hint there’s some mischief up. I make no predictions for how it’ll resolve except that at the end of it Walt Wallet will not be a millionaire. The strip doesn’t break reality that much, plus, think of the biographies of every inventor you know. How many of then end with “died in poverty after long court fights with the companies that ripped off his/her patents”? Yeah.
This is the storyline running Monday through Saturday. On Sundays the comic strip runs separate gags. They’re usually one-off panels, not connected to any storyline. And they’re usually the sort of big dumb old-school sketch comedy stuff that was old when old-time radio was new. And Scancarelli draws it in this warm, friendly, very gentle style. It works for me. I like that kind of comedy. Don’t know that it communicates today.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index fell eight points following uncertainty as to which of the paczki is the strawberry and which is the red raspberry. This might have been weathered but similar doubts were raised regarding the blueberry and the prune ones.
I remember reading this week’s story strip as a kid. It was obviously an important one as it got so much space in the Sunday Star-Ledger‘s pretty good comic section. It didn’t look like a story strip, what with it having knights and sword fights and I would swear the occasional dragon. But I never knew what was going on, since there weren’t any word balloons and everything was explained with these giant blocks of text that I thought were trying to sound olde-tymey. I’m curious how my memory matches the actual fact, but it’s so hard online to look up stuff from the 70s and 80s.
Mark Schultz and Thomas Yeates’s Prince Valiant has good reasons for looking like that. The strip, created in the late 1930s by Hal Foster, keeps that close to its roots, with the action in the panels and the dialogue kept quite separate. This separation was not idiosyncratic when the comic strip started. Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, Flash Gordon and other adventure strips of the time similarly ran their Sunday continuities with action and dialogue separated.
There is, yes, a lot of history to read in the comic strip, which just finished its 80th year. The comic strip reached panel number 4,176 this Sunday. They put the number right there in the comic, as if they’re trying to lure in the slightly obsessive reader. Kind of them. You don’t need to know it. The characters are straightforward enough to drop in on. The settings are classics, at least for a kind of story I didn’t really read while growing up. But that are at least good backdrops for cartoons set in those kinds of settings. The home setting is Camelot-era England and the lands surrounding the North Sea. But sometimes the gang goes on an expedition. Like, now.
I’m not sure when Team Valiant set out on an adventure to the east. But they’ve been tromping around the Far East for well over a year now and I forget what they set out to accomplish. What they have done is have a series of adventures in fresh, attractive settings. And they have looked great, which is tolerably true to both longstanding Western European folklore about the riches of the East and to how, historically, Western Europe of that time was a pit. At least compared to rich, stimulating places like Byzantium and Arabia and India and China.
The current part of the storyline is just a few weeks old, so it’s a good chance to hop on Prince Valiant’s boat if you want. Valiant has just overseen the downfall of a Himalayan-or-so tyrant named Azar Rasa who was hoping to use the awesome powers of the Soul of Asia to conquer Asia. And what is the Soul of Asia? It’s some kind of briefcase-size magical energy construct thingy with an awesome lot of power. It’s potent stuff, built on the learnings of the giants living deep in the Earth.
So, Valiant escaped Azar Rasa’s prison by trying, since even in long-running comics security guards aren’t any good at their job. And with the help of the giants, who dress like yetis — did I mention the giants dress like yetis before? — the good guys blew up the mountain and killed the last of Azar Rasa’s followers. They pitched the Soul of Asia and Azar Rasa into Mount Doom, and all is as well as could be. That’s where 2017 started.
The giants who dress like yetis are grateful to Team Valiant for helping clear up this mess where they kind of let humans get their grubby hands on a briefcase of unimaginably vast destructive power. (They hadn’t wanted to let the original sorcerer-king take it, but he had the thing, and promised not to grab it back if he didn’t use it.) So they offer help, promising to show an easier way that Our Heroes can get to wherever the heck they’re going. They lead the gang deep into the earth and hook them up with a boat and a team of pink dolphins to haul the boat through the underground river.
It’s going well.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index rose a point today and everyone is blaming the peanut-butter-yoghurt-shelled pretzels they got at the store.
So The Phantom, The Ghost Who Walks, is a bit of an overachiever. It’s understandable. He’s the 21st in the line. Consider how many family businesses fall apart when the fourth generation would have taken over if anyone could be found to run things. He must’ve been raised barely able to imagine anything else in life. So while Mark Trail might take Sundays off and Alley Oop might just reiterate his adventures and Spider-Man might get a bit of work done, The Phantom gives us a whole separate story. It’s the only story strip doing that. So it gets a second round of story-recapping from me. Last week I covered the dailies and stuff hasn’t changed much since then.
The Phantom (Sundays).
The Phantom is sworn to defend the people of Bangalla. But it’s a complicated, global world. It always has been. The first Phantom was an English sailor caught in the spice trades. The Phantoms who’ve been on-panel since the comic strip began haven’t been less worldly. This serves some good purposes. For one, it defuses the strip’s built-in concept of the White Savior To These Helpless Black People. That’s also defused by the development and ongoing presentation of Bangalla as a functional liberal democracy. But it helps if The Phantom uses his time and suspiciously great wealth to fight crime wherever it leads, anywhere in the world. And it means the strip can leave the jungle behind without straining its premise.
The current Sundays storyline began the 26th of June, 2016, with a plane crash, always the start to a good jungle adventure if you’re not on it. The plane carries Mikey D’Moda, teenaged idiot scion of the Chicago Mob who’s being traded to the Chinese crime syndicates in exchange for not having him around until he’s eighteen. That and a shipment of authority-attracting guns are supposed to bring a truce to the underworld, because that plan always works out.
Mikey escapes to a freedom lasting whole minutes before The Phantom catches him. Meanwhile the grownups in the Chicago and China Mobs get arrested and interrogated, there to scatter some plot seeds that haven’t yet blossomed. Incidentally along the way the Jungle Patrol gives one of the prisoners the private phone call to his lawyers he’s entitled to, but “accidentally” records it on a phone. I mention this because it’s something true about The Phantom universe.
The good guys are, basically, good guys. But they fall way short of the superhero ideal. They’re not scrupulous about civil rights or the law or ethical behavior. See, for example, The Phantom’s vast wealth, said to be acquired from among other things pirate treasures. That’s fine for a pulp adventure hero; but, in the real world, stuff doesn’t stop having a legitimate owner just because someone else stole it. The Phantom could probably make a claim on stuff that has no recoverable provenance, but he’s not going to that effort.
The good guys typically get away with their cheating because the writers are on their side. But it does come back to bite them sometimes. One of the lingering human rights abuses has been The Phantom keeping the terrorist Chatu in a private, secret prison. This is understandable. Chatu arranged the kidnapping and faked-murder of The Phantom’s wife from his actual professionally-built prison cell. But, still. Is keeping him in a wood hut in the jungle really better? I believe that’s being left around to generate future stories.
After spending minutes listening to Mikey, The Phantom decided the thing to do was punch the crime out of both Chicago and China. He heads first to Chicago and then, conveniently, China follows along. Or someone does, anyway. In a long sequence The Phantom’s chased around the D’Moda Crime Estate by mysterious shadowy figures who look to be ninjas. Yes, I associate ninjas more with Japan and turtles than I do with China, but c’mon. It’s the Chinese Mob. They can hire out. My supposition is that the Chinese Mob is offended that the truce fell apart when Mikey’s plane crashed. This seems to me unfair. But I suppose if you aren’t sure about the good faith of another party then it’s not worth your time to work out the difference between accidents and betrayal.
So, now, The Phantom is in the dying elder D’Moda’s bedroom, as at least one ninja closes in. The Phantom’s getting to some Peter Parker-y levels of snark against his opponent. It’s a good way of keeping the panels from being too much just guys hitting each other and grunting.
And now the index rose back above the psychologically important 100 barrier. Likely this reflects people’s relief at having that whole index-rises unpleasantness behind them and how we’re just going crazy eating the Valentine’s Day candy while it’s in style.
Today’s, and next week’s if all goes well, What’s Going On segments are about the same strip. That’s because it solves the problem of Sunday and weekday readerships being different in decisive form. The weekday and the Sunday strips carry on different stories. Neither sequence has to wait for the other. Surely these can be fit into some order so as to preserve the all-important continuity of The Phantom‘s universe. I admit I’ve never tried.
The Phantom (Weekdays).
I snarked about the importance of continuity to The Phantom. It’s reflexive. The comic strip, started in February of 1936 by Lee Falk, has a continuity. An important one, even.
The Phantom, The Ghost Who Walks, is the 21st of that line, descendant of a chain of superheroes defending the African nation of Bangalla from, in the 16th century, pirates. In the 21st century, it’s … pirates and terrorists. Sometimes stranger stuff. The comic strip shared a universe with Mandrake the Magician and some of Mandrake’s weirdness would leak over. Some of the Mandrake characters have made appearances in The Phantom since that comic ended.
The rough premise of The Phantom may seem overly familiar. Costumed superhero who lives in a secret cave watches for menaces to his homeland. When he finds them he’ll punch them hard enough to leave a mark for decades. (A specially-constructed ring helps with this.) He hasn’t got any superpowers per se. But he deploys intelligence and great physical shape and training plus stunning private wealth to get as close as practical. If it sounds like every costumed superhero comic ever, then remember it got started a couple years before Batman did. I figure to talk about The Phantom‘s universe more next week.
The comic strip, weekday and Sunday threads, are written by Tony DePaul and have been since 1999. The weekday comics have been drawn by Mike Manley since May of 2016. Manley also draws Judge Parker. The Sunday strips have been drawn by Terry Beatty, the artist and now writer for Rex Morgan, M.D..
So here’s the current Phantom weekday storyline. Its essentials were laid out in a week of strips starting the 7th of November and hosted by “Lee Falk”. That’s one of the charming conventions of the comic: a representation of the strip’s originator gives the dramatis personae and necessary backstory for the adventure ahead. If the story’s run long he might pop in again to recap for new or simply lost readers. Or to advance the story to a new point. It’s common enough for cartoonists to be characters in their own strips, but it’s almost always humor strips. Story strips usually leave narration as done by some anonymous source. “Lee Falk” doesn’t really say anything that couldn’t be done by unattached narrative box. But it adds a neat personal touch to the starts of stories that he does.
So the first element is Orson Burley, big, bearded tycoon in the enormous-wealth industry. He’s heard this legend of The Phantom and figures it’d be a good subject for a postage stamp. I have to say I’m on Burley’s side on this. It seems odd that the Republic of Bangalla wouldn’t have already used a semi-mythic protector-legend as subject for a stamp. Local mythical figures on stamps seems like elementary nation-building. Issuing cultural stamps are the first thing you do after gaining independence from the British. Well, the first thing after renaming the street Government House is on to the native word for “Freedom”. But President Lamanda Luaga is cold to the idea, and warns The Phantom of Burley’s investigation. I understand a secretive superhero trying to keep his secrets. But the legend’s been going for four centuries now; this can’t be the first serious scholarly investigation of the thing. Well, so it goes.
Burley’s insisted on learning as much as possible about The Phantom and going ahead with his postage stamp. This despite the warnings of the President and of his limo driver. And Burley’s startled that anyone could see The Phantom as a legend dangerous to investigate. I confess I’d be, too.
Second piece is Akini Ogutu, “CEO of a multinational giant headquartered in Mawitaan”. While Bangalla’s a basically functional democracy it still has problems, even in its capital city. She got targeted and kidnapped, for ransom, by one of those gangs you hear about that hold executives for ransom. The Phantom’s not-at-all-worrisome private army, the Jungle Patrol, finds the hideout. The Phantom goes in alone and rescues her in a daring, exciting raid that full of the sort of superheroics you’d expect. Also that make you wonder, well, why does he have his Jungle Patrol if they aren’t at least doing support on this sort of thing?
(OK, it’s because The Phantom tries to keep his Phantom life and his Jungle Patrol life separate. The Jungle Patrol doesn’t even actually know their leader is The Phantom. They know him only as The Unknown Commander, who issues orders over the phone, and that’s not a potential danger pit at all, is it? But that does shift the question to why not have his army move against the criminal gang, which would seem safer all around?)
Anyway, it must all have been brilliant because he rescued Ogutu. Burley can’t believe Ogutu’s claim that she was rescued by The Phantom, and figures to go on with his research and stamp production. And this week The Phantom has gone to Burley, presumably to explain why not being on a stamp is such a freaking big deal for him. Maybe the 16th Phantom was betrayed by someone selling a fake Penny Red or something.
I mean, the best I can figure is The Phantom figures he’s most effective if he’s surrounded in clouds of mystery and legend. And getting a commemorative postage stamp is the start of a process that leaves him as exotic and remote as Santa Claus. But part of The Phantom’s schtick is that he’s surrounded by a lot of legends and I don’t get how a postage stamp depiction is going to make that greater or lesser. And it isn’t like he hasn’t got, and encouraged, a lot of “old jungle sayings” about his legacy. Is he worried they’ll paint him from an unflattering angle? It seems like a misplaced reaction and I hope something in the coming weeks clarifies matters.
Next week I’ll try to explain the Sunday storyline.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index fell nine points today, inspiring people to point out where we were at this time a week ago. This time a week ago we were at 124. Hoo boy but it’s been a long week.
Sunday has always been a problem for story comics. Sunday newspapers reliably sell more copies, and to a slightly different audience, than the Monday-to-Saturday papers. So how to tell a story when part of the audience gets one strip a week, another part misses one strip a week, and another part gets all seven strips a week? All the soap opera strips make Sundays a recapping of the previous week’s activities. It’s death to pacing; not much can happen on the weekdays so that it can all happen again on Sunday. Gil Thorp doesn’t run Sundays at all. Mark Trail runs a story-unrelated, informational, piece on Sundays. The other adventure strips … have other approaches. Here’s one.
The Amazing Spider-Man
I came to know The Amazing Spider-Man like many in my age cohort did, through the kids’ educational show The Electric Company. In segments on this Spidey battled delightfully absurd villains while staying mute. The show was about teaching reading skills; Spidey’s dialogue was sentences written in word balloons superimposed on the action. In keeping with the show’s tone the villains would be things like an ambulatory chunk of the Shea Stadium wall. Who beat Spidey, soundly. I’ve liked comic books, but somehow never got the bug to collect any normal books like Spider-Man or Superman or anything like that. (But I was the guy to collect the Marvel New Universe line, which, trust me, is a very funny sad thing of me to do.) So that formed my main impression of Spider-Man: a genial sort of superhero who nevertheless can’t outwit a wall.
(Yes yes yes the Wall was a little more complicated than a piece of baseball park wall just do we really need to argue this one? I put up a link to a YouTube copy of the sketch that I’m sure is perfectly legitimate.)
The newspaper Amazing Spider-Man comic strip started the 3rd of January, 1977. It’s credited to Stan Lee for the writing, with the daily strips pencilled by Larry Lieber and inked by Alex Saviuk. The Sunday strips are pencilled by Alex Saviuk and inked by Joe Sinnott, a division of labor that I trust makes sense to someone. The strip is its own little side continuity. It’s separate from, but influenced by, the mainstream Marvel universe. The result is some strange stuff because, even over the course of four decades, they haven’t had a lot of time to have stuff happen. Last year saw Spider-Man meeting Doctor Strange and the current Ant-Man for the first time. I don’t regularly follow Marvel Comics. But I imagine in them Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and Ant-Man spend so much time hanging out with each other they’re a bit sick of the company.
Story strips have a challenge in that the first panel has to give some hint where the story is. Amazing Spider-Man handles that like you’d expect. A lot of captions, which fits the 60s-comics origins of the character, and characters explaining the situation to each other. The problem of Sunday strips? Amazing Spider-Man just lets Sundays happen. The story progresses on Sunday at about the same speed it does the rest of the week. Monday strips often include a little more narrative incluing than, oh, Thursday’s would. But the comic trusts that if you miss the Sunday, fine, you can catch up. Or if you only see the Sundays, you can work out what probably went on during the week.
However much that is. A superhero-action comic has some advantages over, say, a soap opera strip. The soap has to clue in who’s who and why they’re tense about each other. A superhero comic can get away with tagging who’s the villain and letting characters punch each other. Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t do quite as much punching as you’d think. Well, all-action is boring too.
And a lot of what’s appealing about Spider-Man as a character is not the action. It’s that life keeps piddling on him. There’s something wonderful and noble in Peter Parker’s insistence on carrying on trying to save a city that doesn’t like him. So every story invites putting him through petty indignities of life. Another lot of what’s appealing about Spider-Man is that he’s not fully sure he wants to do this. He’d like to just skip it all, if he could. Or at least take a break. Who wouldn’t?
Thing is, the newspaper strip overdoes these. Maybe it’s hard to balance the comedy and self-doubts with the action. Maybe the strip has given in, at least partly, to its ironic or snarky readership. The occasional time I read a Marvel Universe comic book with Spider-Man he’s a bit of a sad sack, but not so much more than anyone with an exciting but underpaying job is. In the newspaper comic … well, it’s funny to have Spidey call up the Fantastic Four or the Avengers or Iron-Man for help on a problem that really does rate their assistance only to be told, ah, no, sorry, we’re helping someone move that day. It’s a good joke that he happened to pick the day that Iron-Man has to be out of the country. But there’s also something pathetic about it, especially when that isn’t the first time other superheroes ditch him on suspiciously vague pretexts.
It’s understandable that Peter Parker, freelance news photographer, would feel insecure about his job especially when Mary Jane Parker is a successful Broadway and minor movie actor. But with two or three panels a day to spend on character he can’t get into much depth. He comes across as whiny instead.
It’s reasonable that Peter Parker would get tired of what is, objectively, a pastime that’s physically and mentally brutal. Or that would be if the strip didn’t pull out a figure named Clown-9 who wants to be the … most hilarious … clown … that ever broke into a … Broadway show? It was a little weird. I liked that one more than many commenters I noticed did. But when I do read superhero comics, I like them broad and goofy in that Silver Age style. But how much emotional recuperation do you need from a guy whose menace is a more-powerful-than-usual water pistol, a duck-headed car, and a loud siren attached to his nose? You come out looking dopey.
Also, Spider-Man gets hit on the head. A lot. There’ve been multiple storylines in which he gets clonked by a brick. If it’s not a misplaced love of Krazy Kat then maybe it’s a riff on the attacking wall of Shea Stadium. It’s easier to understand Spidey’s tendency to nod off if you remember how many blunt head traumas he endures.
It’s all strangely loveable and ridiculous. Some of the characters are new. Some are minor villains of the real Marvel Universe. Some are curiously-poorly-synchronized references to the Marvel Cinematic Universe; last year they did a Doctor Strange storyline months ahead of that movie’s release. And an Ant Man storyline just after we all kind of forgot about his movie.
And that gets me to the current storyline. Remember Guardians of the Galaxy? Really wildly popular movie about three years ago? That’s finally drifted over to the comic strip, with Ronan the Accuser landing in the middle of Arizona Or Some Other Desert State just as Peter Parker and Mary Jane happen to be driving through. Fine enough. Ronan went harassing the patrons of a diner and tossed Peter Parker out the window. Just after that another spaceship, bearing Rocket Raccoon, landed.
I was delighted by that. A lot of the fun in the Spider-Man comic strip is people ragging on Spidey. And Rocket is just the kind of person to deliver no end of cracks about him. I wasn’t disappointed. They met in the traditional way of superheroes meeting one another for the first time, by fighting until they remembered they have no idea why they do that. Then they engaged in the tradition of teaming up to try finding the villain, who’s gone a couple weeks without appearing and might have escaped the comic altogether. We’ll see.
Overall, the strip is a bit goofy. I like goofy, especially in superhero stories. The newspaper Spider-Man has a couple motifs which are perhaps overdone: Peter Parker’s whininess, his strong desire to just go back to bed, everyone in the world insulting him every chance they get. The number of storylines in which Spider-Man’s participation isn’t really needed as the guest villain and guest hero keep everything under control. The oddly excessive white space between panels of the Sunday strips. I don’t care. The stories generally move at a fair pace. The villains are colorful or at least ridiculous. The heroics come around eventually. There’s a lot of silly little business along the way. I have fun reading it. I am so looking forward to when they get an appearance from Squirrel Girl.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The Another Blog, Meanwhile index starts the week up six sharp points owing to how surprisingly good the one-year-old Big Wheel cheese from the farmer’s market on the west side of town is. “Seriously,” one of the traders said under conditions of anonymity, “if we could eat nothing but this cheese we’d have lived our lives correctly”. It was Lisa.
With Judge Parker last week I’ve wrapped up all the syndicated story comics that have had major changes in the writing or art staff recently, by which I mean within like the last five years. But there are more story strips out there, and chatting with my Twitter friends suggest people find them baffling. Plus, what the heck, these pieces are popular.
I want to share a bit about a piece of art that did that most precious of things: make a lifelong (so far) change in my attitude about something. It wasn’t Gil Thorp. It was this high school comedy/drama called Ed. One episode Ed was trying to help a bright student get a scholarship, and needed just a slightly higher grade in gym. Surely his colleague would help him help out a bright kid who just didn’t care about phys ed, right? “Yeah,” said the coach, “because it’s not like I’m a real teacher or anything.” (Something like that, anyway.) It stung Ed, and it stung me, because the coach was right. I’d sneered at gym class, mostly because it seemed to be 86 weeks per year of Jumping Jacks Only More Boring and twelve minutes of things someone might actually do, like softball or volleyball or archery or stuff. And because even as a kid I had the dynamic physique of a medieval cathedral, only with tighter hamstrings.
But the coach was right. If school has a point it’s to make people familiar at least with all the major fields of human endeavor. And being able to be healthy and active is part of that. It’s as real and serious a subject as the mathematics or English or arts or science or music classes are. (In the episode, Ed came back humbled, and the gym teacher allowed the student to earn the “needed” grade by doing extra work.) And that’s stuck with me. I may not much care for sports, but that’s my taste. I should extend to it, and its enthusiasts, the same respect I give enthusiasts for other stuff I’m just not into.
Gil Thorp has not changed my attitudes on anything important nearly like that. The comic strip — which dates back to 1958 — has been written by Neal Rubin since 2004 Wikipedia tells me. It’s been drawn by Rod Whigham since 2008. So they’ve got the hang of what they want to do. There are other comic strips set in schools, such as Jef Mallet’s nearly joke-a-day Frazz and Tom Batiuk’s continuity-comedy-bathos Funky Winkerbean. But this is the only story strip that I guess gets into newspapers that’s set in high school. It’s also the only sports-themed story strip, and one of only a few remaining sports-themed comics at all. Why this should have survived and, say, Flash Gordon didn’t I don’t know, but what the heck.
Rubin and Whigham have a pretty clear idea what they want to do. Pretty much every season of the year has a story about the season’s appropriate sporting activity. One or two student-athletes, often new people but sometimes characters who were supporting players previous years, dominate the storyline. They go through some shenanigans trying to be students, or athletes, or teens. The important thing here is that they are teens, and even smart teenagers are kind of dumb. Eventually they’re dumb enough that Coach Gil Thorp has to call him in to their office and explain to them to knock it off, which they mostly do. On to the next season. Often the starts of one storyline reappear as supporting players in later storylines, for a year or two. This implies Rubin and Whigham keep careful continuity records so they know when each student entered the school, what they played, how they were doing, when they left and under what circumstances. I admire the craftsmanship involved.
Dumbness is important. The Gil Thorp kids don’t tend to be stupid in malicious or obnoxious ways. Just dumb in the way that people who aren’t used to thinking through the situation are. For example, a few storylines ago the problem was one of the athletes getting the idea in his head that ADHD medicine would help his performance. So he pressured one of the kids who has Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder to share his medicine. After resisting a while, the pressured student starts passing along … aspirins with the name filed off. The kid buys it. It’s the sort of thing that you do when you grow up thinking you’re in a sitcom filmed before a live studio audience and this is the sort of thing that makes the tense audience gasp and then applaud. When Thorp finally found out, he suspended both, on the correct grounds that they were being dumb. Well, that one was trying to get drugs off another student, and that student was passing him drugs, even if harmless ones.
That’s pretty much the way things go, though. There’s kids puttering along into mostly minor scrapes, as followed by updates in-between sporting events. There’s a developing crisis in which Gil Thorp is finally pulled into the storylines of his own strip to tell everyone to knock it off. And there’s the steady beat of how the team finishes the season in football (in the autumn), basketball (in the winter), softball (in the summer), and whatever sport catches Rubin’s fancy (in the summer). Sometimes it’s the boys’ team that gets the focus, sometimes the girls’. Sometimes the story involves trading off the focus. Now and then the teams get into the playoffs, or as the dialect of wherever the school is has it, “playdowns”, sometimes they fall short. They do well enough that nobody really calls for Thorp to resign. Perhaps they know that would end the comic. Or end their part in it, since he’d presumably go on to some other high school to sort of coach.
There will be surprises. 2016’s spring storyline grew to encompass all summer when one of the students was hit and killed in a messy, stupid car accident. Given the genially dopey nature of what had been going on before, a dose of actual blood was shocking. It scrambled my expectations. Good that I could have expectations and that they could break them in a credible way.
So, the current storyline. It’s about new basketball team star Aaron Aagard. He’s a solid player, a good student, charming in a weird way. At least he’s trying to be. I don’t know how you feel about 17-year-olds who make excuses to juggle. Anyway, that’s all on his good days. On his bad days he’s distracted, unconnected, and maybe falling asleep. Perhaps he’s just exhausted. He goes to raves, even on school nights, which is the sort of low-key scandalous behavior that fits the Gil Thorp worldview.
Maybe a bigger problem is some of his teammates overheard him talking about “taking Molly”. They believe that’s slang for ecstasy. Maybe it is. I don’t know. I’m what the hep kids call “a square”. So while I don’t know I’m willing to accept that any otherwise unaccounted-for word is slang for ecstasy. The kids think it over and after Aagard has a couple more unreliable days they pull the coach in. This seems early. The story only started the 12th of December. Maybe the story’s going to spin out in stranger ways. Maybe they want to start softball season early.
Aagard said if he could just have a few days he’d clear up this whole “taking Molly” thing. That’s again the sort of dumb thing you do if you think you’re living in a three-camera sitcom and setting up a big reveal that Molly is your generically-disabled niece or something. Thorp seems to have gone along with that, which is dumb. Unless Aagard explained stuff off-panel and clearing this up is about explaining it to his teammates. Which I expect, but could be wrong about.
Someone on, I think, the Comics Curmudgeon blog found there actually is a region of the United States where the high school sports postseason is called the “playdowns”. I forget what the region is. But, hey, I’ve been places where they label water fountains “bubblers”. I can take “playdowns”. It says something about Rubin’s determination to stick to a specific kind of craft that he’s holding on to the term “playdown”. Nobody would complain if they switched to “playoff” like everybody else says. People would stop making jokes about the comic’s little weirdness in saying “playdown”. Rubin’s decided the comic strip will be what it is, even if they’re made fun of for it. That’s an important thing to take out of high school too.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index dropped five points as traders reported a night of unsteady, broken sleep, constantly interrupted by thoughts of Donald Trump and the theme song to Vacation being stuck in their heads. The editorial staff extends their deepest condolences.
So, 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.