(Update, 9:14 a.m. Friday: You know things are bad when a character is saying “Oh God oh God” over and over, as in Friday’s strip.)
Look at that panel. Just look at it. Look at the terrified, eerily lit faces, the flying vodka bottle, the bespectacled passenger in back screaming for dear life.
I haven’t seen anything so frightening in the funny papers since the heyday of EC horror comics.
Less than a month ago, writer Francesco Marciuliano said on his blog that he would be taking over the writing duties on “Judge Parker” from Woody Wilson. I was hopeful, if skeptical, that he was going to make some major changes.
Marciuliano started his tenure Monday with a car carrying Sophie and her band (which, it should be pointed out, is not the name of the group) deciding to press on home despite a torrential storm that had wiped out the main road. The alternative: a cliff-hugging two-lane.
As they made their way around the mountain, Sophie’s archenemy Honey shared a bottle of vodka with bass player Zeke. Sophie reminded the pair that the group was underage and shouldn’t be drinking at all. At which point Honey threw the bottle, which knocked out driver Derek’s tooth, which caused him to lose control of the car as a truck came barreling in the other direction …
(As Comics Curmudgeon Josh Fruhlinger notes, credit to Wilson for leaving Marciuliano this plot development. Credit to artist Mike Manley, too, for his appropriately horrific work.)
That panel, incidentally, is from Wednesday’s strip. Today’s tightened the screws a bit, with a cutaway to the Driver ranch and a joke about butt-dialing and “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights.” (However, it’s surprisingly light out at the homestead. Given the hour concerts usually end and the blackness of the mountain road, shouldn’t Abbey and Neddy have been getting their call at 1 a.m.?)
In his blog entry, Marciuliano had cracked a joke about the cast being burned a fire. He acknowledged he was kidding about that, but he apparently wasn’t when he wrote:
Some new characters will be introduced. Some ancillary characters will be phased out. And some major characters will experience great tests. Like I mentioned, the drama is all about facing the obstacles on the road to triumph or tragedy.
The use of “road,” it turns out, wasn’t a metaphor.
It’s unusual for characters to die in comic strips — even long-running soap opera comic strips. Yeah, Aldo Kelrast went off a cliff, but usually everybody goes on and on until the artist dies. Even then, the syndicate just hires someone new, so people who fell asleep in 1953 can wake up and still find “Mark Trail” and “Mary Worth” chirping away.
So a death in “Judge Parker” — especially one so unexpected — is really blazing a trail. Or going off one, as the case may be.