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When You Can’t Find Bubble Yum

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on October 22, 2017

Today’s comic ends on an ellipse rather than a period, and I would like to leave it at that. So instead we’re going to follow Ted’s lead when things get difficult and find momentary solace in candy.

Introduced in the early 70s and barely making into the 1980s (though a version called “Curly Wurly” continues to be sold in international markets and through retro candy dealers), the Marathon bar was a long, chocolate-coated caramel bar that looked like you either had lopped off someone’s hair braid or moths had gotten at it.

Packaged in a bright red wrapper with yellow typeface in an era when every TV show’s credits were in exact same color (mostly because it stood out brightest against the maelstrom of earth tones and wildly conflicting patterns that exemplified every set dressing or character outfit), the candy prominently featured a ruler on back to prove it was a full, impressive, perhaps imposing eight inches. And though today’s comic says otherwise, the bar’s sheer size would make it thoroughly impossible to actually shove inside a vending machine, which seems like a rather poor marketing and retail decision in hindsight.

You’ll also notice that the bar measures 20 cm in length, even though the Marathon brand (in the braided format) was sold only in the states. That’s because the candy was launched just as the US was gearing up to switch to the metric system—resulting in numerous conversations in which an exasperated eight-year-old would have to keep reminding their disinterested parents the difference between “deci” and “deca”—only for the country to simply start selling soda in two-liter bottles to streamline the global manufacturing process and keep the prefix “kilo” for whenever a drug smuggler in a movie would open a crate of cocaine, wipe clear the coffee beans used to through off the scent of detection dogs, slice open a bag, dip their pinky in, and realize they hadn’t washed their hands after going to the bathroom, thereby ruining at least ten grand right there.

Like all good products the candy had its own spokesperson, in this case “Marathon John,” which worked well with both the brand name as well as the increased awareness and acceptance of porn movies in the early 70s. With each commercial the candy’s John extolled the virtues of the product to someone who—like all “villains” in candy and cereal commercials—burst into a room and immediately went into bullet-point detail about who they are and what they want, introducing children everywhere to the concept of an “elevator pitch” or what happens when you eat all of mommy’s diet pills. But soon they would be soothed and even satisfied as Marathon John showed them the importance of taking your time, making things last, savoring with the tongue, and finding a rhythm that works best for both you and the candy as together you increase momentum until you can conclude in a satiating snack experience for all.

Fun Fact: In the UK, the Marathon was not a candy-coated version of the caduceus symbol but rather a chocolate-covered peanut bar in a brown packet with blue lettering. It was eventually renamed Snickers.

I don’t remember having a Marathon bar as a kid. I do remember enjoying Pop Rocks, Astro Pops, and Space Dust, which was more or less Pop Rocks sawdust and featured a commercial in which you get to experience what it would be like if your blood cells started talking only for you to wake up in a field several days later, partially shaved.

But the candy I remember most from that time was Bubble Yum. My dad worked on promotion for “the first soft gum” from the very beginning, which meant I received boxes and boxes of the stuff both in original and grape flavor. (I also loved the gum’s packaging, because when you’re the son of a graphic designer and you can’t play any sport well except for the ones you make up alone in your backyard, this is what you do.) Alas, I received all this gum just as I had made a New Year’s resolution to not chew gum for a full year, having previously been known to shove several sticks of Fruit Stripe in my maw at once. (I should also note that I was so proud that I actually stuck to my resolution that I re-upped with it for another year. And another. It has now been 40 years since I’ve chewed gum for reasons that I can no longer explain except with “Got to keep the streak going.”)

So instead I started selling the gum on the bus to and from school. This was a time when for some reason half the kids in my school seemed to be running transient candy shops, purchasing the candy at the store and then reselling it at a mark-up that could be justified by convenience. However, since I got all my gum for free I managed to undersell not only other kids but the supermarkets as well. Eventually being both very shy and cringing every time the bush driver yelled at me for I guess operating without a small business license, I switched to the wholesale end and started selling the gum exclusively to the kids who then sold it at their inflated price. Then I started collecting all doubles and triples of my Topps baseball cards, drew my own packaging, and sold those packs on the bus instead. Sadly, my business acumen peaked at age ten.

Of course, any mention of Bubble Yum must include one of the great 70s urban legends (that also played out in my school) in which it was posited that the only reason the gum was so soft and chewy was because it was made with spider eggs, a feat of childhood logic that would be akin to “You know how they carbonate Coke? Possum embryos.” But the rumors spread so fast and became so brand-destructive that the company was forced to debunk it with a full-page ad in The New York Times.

The other thing I recall about Bubble Yum is going to the marketing headquarters with my dad as a kid and getting to see the actual puppet for Flavor Fiend. This will mean absolutely nothing to almost anyone—including people my own age—thereby showing the brief lifecycle of almost all commercial spokescharacters. (And like many kid-focused product spokescharacters, Flavor Fiend followed the typical narrative arc of “I must taste that!/Wy won’t you let me have that?/Do you know my doctor says I need that to live?”) But it was another wonderfully unique moment in a childhood in which I got to see the inner workings of a lot of pop culture phenomenons and marketing campaigns thanks to my dad, and that all adds up to something far less fleeting than a childhood trend.

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Jim’s Inheritance

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on October 21, 2017

This December will mark 20 years I have written Sally Forth. In that time I’ve made a few changes to the comic. New characters have been introduced (Jackie, Laura, Faye, Nona, Cynthia), some have been moved to more of a guest-starring role (Alice), and at least one has disappeared all together (Ralph’s assistant Marcie, who ran off after embezzling funds from the company, which was never mentioned in the strip but I consider canon).

But the biggest change has clearly been to the character of Ted Forth. When I first met Ted (by way of several hundred pages of comics FedEx to me when I got the job) three defining characteristics stood out: He seemed to be employed somewhere, he liked meatloaf, and he always wore clothes. There was in one strip a mention of Ted having four brothers, but they didn’t have any names until one day when I was apparently not over the then lack of new DuckTales episodes.

He also played golf, like almost every white male character in newspaper comics, but I got rid of that three minutes into doing the comic. Other changes followed—he grew up on Long Island. (In Huntington—home of The Seavers—and not in my nearby own home town of Dix Hills, a name I knew would never see the light of day in comic print because it would essentially read as “Ted hails from Shaft and Scrotum.”) He watches Star Wars Holiday Special every day after Thanksgiving. He may be part of a secret cabal. And. most obvious, he is obsessed with pop culture, especially that associated with Generation X.

It’s an obsession that some have taken as an honest portrayal of a happy geek, others have seen as proof of Ted’s crippling manchild persona, and a few have wondered, “Why the hell doesn’t he just sell his Kenner Star Wars action figures already so he can pay off both the mortgage and Hilary’s eventual college fund?” But the question always remained just why is Ted so focussed on pop culture? Is it because it’s fun to write about in a strip? Of course. Is it because I myself am obsessed with pop culture? Definitely. Is it because it allowed me to do The Man Who Fell to Earth by way of pumpkins, thereby making it all the more likely I’ll one day do a Liquid Sky Easter Sunday? Oh yes.

But those are all reasons that exist outside of the strip. So today, within the comic, we get our first real glimpse of how pop culture came to define his life—through his relationship with his dad. As will be revealed in upcoming strips, when Ted was little he and his dad watched movies together, watched TV cartoons together, and talked about the very minutiae of entertainment medium. This was their language, as it now is between Ted and Hilary. But it’s a language that held father and son together when Ted was young yet did not keep the bond together later in life. As it turns out for some people, it was a father-son relation built for one’s childhood, not adulthood.

In short, it’s now a relationship and language built on memory, nostalgia, and of course pop culture of yore. And so here we have Ted reaching out to his dad the one surefire way he knows how, mentioning one of the most celebrated episodes of frankly one of the best sitcoms in the last 40+ years. For those who don’t know the show Taxi, the second panel can read as an inside joke or something that takes them out of the story. That is the risk of citing particulars. And it would be far more problematic if such a mention served as either the punchline or the very essence of today’s strip. But it doesn’t. It’s a detail in a strip about communication lost, perhaps far longer that either character had recognized.

For those unfamiliar with “Jim’s Inheritance”—the episode recalled by Ted—it helps to be familiar with Christopher Lloyd’s character Reverend Jim, a former Harvard student and scion of an extremely wealthy family who lost his way with drugs an, though kind and goodhearted, has become the black sheep of his highly-esteemed family. The result has been an almost complete breakdown in communication between Jim and his dad, resulting in intermittent visits home until Jim gets his version of “the call”—a letter saying that his father has died. Over the course of the episode it is discovered that the father has left Jim with a sizable fortune, but his much more “acceptable” siblings legally question his mental competency and Jim is left with a single, old trunk of his father’s possessions.

Below is that episode, with perhaps one of the quiet and true moments to occur within a sitcom (again, it helps if you are familiar with the particular characters). It was one of my dad’s favorite moments, and always made him tear up. And it came to mind repeatedly when my dad passed away. But I couldn’t bring myself to watch it after my dad died. Posting this is actually the very first time I have seen this episode in almost four decades. You need not watch the entire video. But if you are interested in what Ted is referring to—or you wish to relive the moment for yourself—I suggest starting at the 17:56 mark.

Take care.

In the Key of G Minor

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on October 20, 2017

I don’t profess any breadth of musical knowledge whatsoever. (I am, however, painfully well aware of my own limitations as a singer, which is why unlike my brother I never took up an entire three-hour car ride to our relatives as a kid belting out “Hotel California” with such particular emphasis as “They STAB it with THEIR steely KNIVES but they JUST can’t kill THE beast.”) But a quick internet study a few years back taught me some very broad strokes about musical keys. D major often signifies triumph. E major is rambunctious. And G minor is discontent and/or unease.

Portraying a sense of disquiet is never exactly the most inviting approach. And we knew going into this storyline that it would be only a matter of days (well, minutes) before some readers would be using the word “Funkyverse” to describe current Sally Forth. For those who don’t frequent specific online communities, “Funkyverse” is another way of saying. “For the love of God, lighten the f*** up already!”

But the obvious truth about light is that it does cast a shadow, and to avoid the shadow is to deprive an object of its weight and substance. Of course, wallowing in shadow only prevents one from experiencing the joy that is far more common and accessible than our brains will sometimes allow us believe. It’s a balancing act. Certainly right now Sally Forth is casting an eye more to the shadow behind it than the sun in front. But in moments of grief that is precisely what one does. You reflect, you wonder what you could have done to prevent the current situation even though almost every time you could have not prevented or foreseen it, and you find yourself in a grey area. You know you will need to—you will certainly have to—move forward, but you can’t quite look back into the sun because right then its light is too harsh, too revealing, and frankly too much for you to take in. We will of course step out of the shadow. We won’t wallow. But without occasionally acknowledging the shadows life can cast I believe the strip would risk becoming immaterial, insubstantial. That can certainly be read as a ridiculously self-aggrandizing statement of “THIS IS IMPORTANT AND WHAT WE DO IS IMPORTANT” but really, we want the people of Sally Forth to feel real and recognizable, or as much as they can when one character can launch into a monologue about how Star Wars would have differed if R5-D4’s motivator had not malfunctioned and Uncle Owen had not traded him in for Artoo. (The answer is not much, except that the Empire would have won and Luke would still be spending his days on the farm, killing time writing slash fiction about Jawas.)

And rereading the above paragraph I am reminded of the following scene in The Simpsons:

So today, in the key of G minor, we have Ted regretting he had not spend enough time with his dad as he copes with just how much his father’s condition advanced in his absence. I live only an hour away by train from my folks, so I saw my dad frequently and the changes, though very upsetting, never came all at once as a shock. But there were relatives for whom a period of time away resulted in an entirely different wave of emotions. I do not presume to talk for them. But I thought it important to address that aspect in the strip, since so many have experienced the situation from that perspective.

Also written in G minor (well, technically G-sharp minor) is Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money,” a comeback song after her disco successes. Like today’s strip, it’s about longing and regret, as it tells the story of restroom attendant Onetta Johnson who is overwhelmed but keeps moving forward. The music video for the song more emphatically ends the tale on a note of resilience. And yes, the song reeks of early-80s Giorgio Moroder synths. And yes, the video shoot seems to have started with the director shouting, “We only have an afternoon to do this, people, and it’s already 3 PM!” But it’s still a great song, and for those who are understandably finding our current story to be a bit too much for three panels placed between Sudoku and a tire ad in their paper, perhaps this will give the necessary small uplift.

Linus Has His Moment

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on October 19, 2017

It’s All Right, It’s Okay, You May Look the Other Way

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on October 19, 2017

When we were with my dad on his first (and last) day in the Palliative Wing the nurse asked me what kind of music my father would like to listen to, since they had a small CD player with speakers in each patient’s room. I was still in shock, still trying to call various people, and still dealing with the unrelenting volume that comes with Italian relatives that I think I uttered something along the lines of “What did you ask about cheese?” So the staff chose Andrea Bocelli, and the moment the music started playing I finally snapped back to awareness, thinking, “This has to be the kindest, most thoughtful example of ethnic profiling ever.”

The music was ostensibly for my dad, but like a funeral or a wake it was also very much for those who had come to visit and grieve. And equally as important, asking us to choose the music was the nurse’s extremely empathetic gesture to allow us a sliver of control in a situation in which we had none, to let us do something for my dad when we really couldn’t do anything at all but be there.

All of this comes in to play over the past two Sally Forth strips. Hearing the music chosen by the staff is what snaps Ted out of his shock. Demanding what music should instead be played is Ted’s way of both trying to do something when he feels can’t do anything for his dad. And by speaking up for his dad, by saying what his dad would prefer instead, he can give his dad a voice and so still emphasize he has not left yet.

Yes, my dad loved disco. Even though he was in his 40s when it the disco era began, my dad loved to dance and so this became the soundtrack from here on out. Sure, he listened to all kinds of music, but disco made him both happy and energetic. So he would play the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack over the outdoor speakers when we were on the patio. He would play it in the car, resulting in speeds that are not recommended on suburban roads. And he played it in the open garage as he silkscreened his line of softer pornographic t-shirts. (In case the sentence itself didn’t clearly indicate, the link is to a post both endearing yet decidedly mature-audience in content. It also involves Bugs Bunny.)

Now, my dad didn’t hate Andrea Bocelli. He would sit through whatever concert footage PBS would show during pledge drives as he and my mom waited to see the next episode of Poirot or Inspector Morse. But he found it all a bit dull. Yes, he liked Luciano Pavarotti in an era when I think all Italians legally had to in the 80s, but he never liked it when he covered pop songs. And my dad didn’t exactly rush to the movie theater or stop flipping channels when Yes, Giorgio came out or aired.

As for disco, I will say mentioning a song by name in the context of the current storyline proved an absolute minefield given just how many of the genre’s most popular titles inadvertently mention death or illness—”Stayin’ Alive,” “I Will Survive,” “Night Fever,” and so on. “Night Fever” was a particularly hard one to skip because I do like the song and it was to serve as the outro music at the very end of this entire story arc, but I thought better of it. In fact, I had written a strip in which Ted, trying to say what song his dad should be listening to, rattles off those very three titles only to realize what he is saying and ask someone to make him stop talking. And it was in the second to last draft of this week’s script (yes, I do a few drafts and not just ramble on the paper as some may think) when I was still wresting with how wrong that would sound. And so it was in the shower (sorry for that image)—where along with walking several miles a day I do my writing—when inspiration struck and I ran out naked (REALLY sorry for that image) and made the changes. I think being able to do that may be one of the perks of working from home. I mean, sure, I guess you can run naked to an office job, but that would have involved me hauling ass for several blocks to BusinessWeek. And true, if that were the case why wouldn’t I just take the subway or a cab instead? But taking public transportation naked seems all too predetermined, deliberate, and completely insane. Whereas just running out naked is far more immediate, extemporaneous, and would lead people to exclaim, “Now there’s a person on the go!”

Let me conclude by addressing a few comments that have come up the past two days. Some have mentioned that during their own visit to a Palliative Wing they never encountered any music or cd player, and so the very situation presented in the strip is patently false. All I can share is what I experienced. As I have said before, just because it happened to me does not make it universal. But because someone else’s experiences differed does not make what is shown here false.

Which brings us to a very important point—to have a story be approachable by many I believe you have to be singular in its telling. If you flatten it out too much—if you avoid personal experiences, brand names, a unique perspective—the story becomes so bland as to almost become unreal. But if you go all in on the detail, a strange thing happens. You don’t distance yourself from most readers simply because the minutiae differ from what they recall. Instead, you give them something tangible that they can hold, study, and relate to. It’s like when you share an anecdote with a friend and they respond with “Oh, that reminds me of when…” It let’s someone react, respond, and return to a moment in their own life. In the end, not every story should be a mirror. But every story should be a passageway.

A Note about the Current Sally Forth Story

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on October 18, 2017

While we have been fortunate enough to see that the positive responses to our current “Sally Forth” storyline far outweigh the negative, I do want to stress that we know that this will not to be everyone’s liking. And people are absolutely in their right to share their feelings about it, pro or con. And I thoroughly understand if someone wishes to skip the comic during this story, which is of course their choice. But to those who say it should not be done—that we were wrong to every address this story and that comics should only be light or pleasant because that is how you understandably wish to start your day—you are standing in the way of others for whom it appears to be helping and who choose to use it as a platform to express their own grief. That, and that most importantly, is why we believe why this arc should be done.

Medium Large Comic: Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on October 18, 2017

(Silence)

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on October 17, 2017

I originally was not going to write anything about this particular strip because I’m not sure there is anything to say that isn’t conveyed in Jim Keefe’s final panel.

I will, however, say that I believe this is the first time I’ve ended a Sally Forth strip on a silent note. And I will also add that such is not a particularly easy thing to do, even though some may see it as an easy way out because, hey, no punchline or wrap-up. (Or simply be surprised that a Sally Forth character stopped talking at length for a moment.) I don’t mention “not a particularly easy thing to do” as a means of articulating my arm so as to pat my own back. But ending a comic on silence is abrupt. It’s not easy for a casual reader to come across because without an ending one can’t move on to the next comic below so smoothly. And ending it in this manner can be jarring to say the least.

And I bring up the concept of jarring to the readers because I want people to know that we are in no way showing Ted’s dad lying in the hospital for shock value. We are not trying to be bold, be grim for grim’s sake, or make a thoughtless grab for your attention. But to not have Ted’s dad present throughout this story—and for those who do not wish to see a character in such a condition, it’s only fair to say you will see it throughout the narrative—I believe would be remarkably dismissive of the father. He would no longer be a person but a point of conversation, an unseen entity, gone before he has really left. This is a strip about loss, and to experience loss you have to know exactly who you are losing. To accept it, to properly say your goodbye, to allow yourself to grieve, you have to look at loss directly. To experience an almost unthinkable absence even when the other person is right there, right before your eyes, is one of the hardest gut punches your soul will ever feel and sadly most likely will experience more than once. Ted has to see his dad for his loss to become mourning to become acceptance to become the memory of the person when they were still alive. We have to see Ted’s dad out of respect to both the character and the grieving process.

I also bring up jarring in relation to those within the strip. When you enter the room of a loved one in this condition, your mind only allows yourself two options—freeze or cry. Because when you first see someone who is still alive but will never be able to communicate with you again, that very separation between you and the person is far too much for your brain to handle. So it protects itself and you by creating a mental workflow chart that only allows two very primal reactions. I was speaking to a friend today about his recent chainsaw accident (and I do not write the phrase “chainsaw accident” lightly). He said that when it happened his mind went dark. It shut off. He has no recollection of the moment it occurred because the brain knows (there’s just something odd or meta about the phrase “the brain knows”) no one could see that and still react when it becomes necessary immediately afterwards. It protected him. And yes, there are so many ways our brains seem to deliberately cause us self-doubt, prevent us from what we can actually achieve, and make us feel bad at the worst moment. But sometimes they step up to the plate and do what’s right by us. (I do wish to add my friend is on his way to a full recovery without loss of any limb.)

So what made landing on a silent final panel possible? That would be Jim Keefe. I am extremely fortunate to be working with two unbelievably talented artists, Jim and Mike Manley with Judge Parker. Their tremendous skill is not something I ever take lightly. But it is something I occasionally take advantage of, perhaps unfairly. I have not always asked Jim to draw the easiest things, whether it’s hundreds of people screaming in panic as their neighborhood blows up, two giant kaiju whipping each other with commuter trains, or this very last panel. But I knew when I wrote this script Jim would capture everything I’ve been rambling on and on about these last several paragraphs with a few expressive lines. He captured everything that needed to be said. And he did it without saying a word.

PS: The next three days are part of a mini arc, so I’ll post again on Friday.

Happy Global Cat Day!

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on October 16, 2017

Medium Large Comic: Monday, October 16, 2017

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on October 16, 2017

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