I didn’t expect “Judge Parker” to turn into a Quentin Tarantino movie, but that’s the comparison that came to mind after I read Sunday’s strip, featuring two characters pointing guns at each other. Two women, yet.
But there was also a sense of fatigue revealed in a bit of meta-dialogue between those two characters, Sophie’s kidnappers. (I’m still thinking, “kidnapping”? What about the car crash? Was that part of the plan? Awfully destructive if all you wanted to do was kidnap Sophie.) Early on, one character tells the other, “You never had a handle on this plot!”
One day when I was a teenager, I stumbled on the October 1, 1973, issue of New York magazine. Somehow this particular issue, released at the height of Watergate, knew the roots of the person I was to become a few years later because in it there were articles about two satirical creations that had a profound impact on me: Mad magazine and Wacky Packages.
The latter was perhaps my first knowing experience with satire. It was sometimes blunt-force satire, easy jokes for pre-adolescents, but for a 9-year-old kid trying to find an attitude to approach the world, it led to everything else. As I wrote in 2008 upon the release of a “Wacky Packages” book:
From there, it was a short trip to Mad magazine, “Saturday Night Live,” National Lampoon, punk rock, trolling used-book stores and record stores, and indulging in other mind-rotting activities (memorizing trivia, creating puns) until I became the skeptical, disillusioned writer you have before you.
(Incidentally, except for this blog, I don’t usually write in the first person — sorry, Jan and Mira, who always wanted more of me in my pieces — but I made an exception here, because, well, Wackies were so essential to my being.)
A few months ago, Sophie was in a car with a bottle of vodka, her frenemy Honey and some buzzed musicians. It was late at night. It was raining. They were on a curvy cliffside road. Suddenly the car swerved to avoid a truck and everybody went careening down the hillside.
In his efforts to clean up the sprawling plotlines of the venereal venerable strip, Francesco “Ces” Marciuliano has jumped ahead in time. Last week a grizzled Sam Driver furiously stared at clippings on a board, as if trying to solve a murder on “The Closer.” He seems to believe that Sophie’s disappearance — we won’t call it a death, because the characters aren’t — was planned. (If so, the planners are almost as clever and far-seeing as Russian hackers.)
And then there’s been a mysterious meeting between the mysterious criminals and Judge Parker himself, not to mention Neddy lamenting her life in Alaska. It’s all a bit like the opening of Snoopy’s magnum opus, “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night.” “Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon! While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up. …”
I don’t know what to make of today’s “Judge Parker.” Is that Sophie? I’ve already forgotten what she looks like. I guess it could be that cunning Honey. But isn’t Honey a blonde?
And how did she end up in the hospital? Weren’t the cops still going through the woods?
Well, I know it’s not Neddy. She’ll soon be hauled up on felony charges of negligence and skirting the permit process, since an upstanding corporate honcho wouldn’t have placed their factory — a shipping container! — over a sinkhole. Looks like money can buy you a lot of things, Spencer-Driver clan, but it can’t buy you ethics.
When last we checked in with the soapy strip, the plotlines were pretty straightforward: a carload of teenagers — including Sophie, daughter of the wealthy Spencer-Driver clan — had crashed off a cliff. Some of the kids were likely dead, including Sophie, though we couldn’t be sure. Only that annoying Honey had definitely survived.
That seemed enough plot to fuel a “Judge Parker”-like strip for several months or more; hell, “Mary Worth” and “Mark Trail” have worked with far less.
But wait, there was more!
Neddy’s fashion firm was having its grand opening, complete with cynical TV reporters. But Hank, her on-again, off-again “friend,” was leaving for parts far away. Or was he?
So that’s where things stood: possible death, possible romance, possible “Mad City.” What more could there be?
Well, I don’t know what Francesco Marciuliano has been smoking, but apparently the new writer has decided to throw in all the plots he hasn’t been able to work into “Sally Forth.” To wit: a pair of skullduggery-minded criminals muttering in a car and a calamitous sinkhole that has swallowed Neddy’s factory.
Though surprising (if nonsensical), at least the sinkhole has some relationship to familiar characters. But who are the men plotting behind the wheel of “a blood-soaked car”? I’ve been reading “Judge Parker” since 1921 and I don’t recall them ever appearing before. Are they from the movie studio that bought Judge Parker’s screenplay?
I’ll stick with “Judge Parker” — that’s what we comic strip readers do, until our brains fall out of our ears like rotted produce — but I wonder what I’m sticking with. I do have one request for Mr. Marciuliano, though: Please, don’t introduce a character named “Kelrast.”
When last we checked in with “Judge Parker” — from which the actual Judge Parker retired many years ago and now only pops up long enough to flog his screenplay — Sophie appeared to be hanging from a tree after the car she was riding in went over a cliff to avoid hitting a truck.
She may be dead; she may be semi-conscious and trying to force herself from drifting down the River Styx; she may be trying to remember chords to songs by Styx. (Presumably not “Too Much Time on My Hands.”) It was all resolutely unclear.
Since then, the Wise Cracking State P.D. has arrived, making fun of the truck driver’s name (Panini, prompting one guy to call him “Sandwich”) and wondering about a mysterious bag full of cash that was found at the scene. (Subplot! It couldn’t have belonged to the teenagers — they’d be lucky if their gig grossed three figures.) The police haven’t quite gotten to the car yet — a car that will almost certainly be full of dead teenagers, assuming they weren’t thrown clear.
Meanwhile, back at the Filthy Rich Ranch, Sam and Abbey are wondering why Sophie won’t answer her phone. And Neddy has gotten into an argument with Hunk Hank and he won’t be coming to the opening of their clothing design business because he’s moving to Alaska. And the phone keeps on ringing, and ringing, and ringing …
But all I can say is, Wow. Not only has Ces Marciuliano come out with pens blazing, but Mike Manley! These are panels worthy of his most dramatic work. When did a newspaper soap opera strip start taking the “opera” part seriously?