Later that Same Day: On Writing Judge Parker
In 1997 for reasons that I can only ascribe to the Fates saying, “Hell, we gotta give him something to do” I was extremely fortunate to be hired as the new writer of the comic strip Sally Forth. The fact I received the call the day after I had decided once and for all to give up pursuing a career in cartooning and commence a career in wishing I had become a cartoonist made it seem all the more like a gift from Arcadia, Asgard or whoever those poorly animated elders were in Shazam.
And then this July King Features kindly decided to not learn from their mistake and gave me the writing duties for the long-running comic Judge Parker. I am extremely excited, very grateful, and more than a little anxious about taking the strip forward (and I mean that literally, since we will indeed see the next morning). I also know some of you have questions about what lies ahead. So without further ado let me address a few of those before a thousand more crop up when I take over August 22nd.
Be honest—are you going to f*** this up?
Probably. Not intentionally but almost certainly in the beginning, courtesy of the learning curve. After all, I was almost three years into writing Sally Forth before a reader informed me that Sally likes to bite the ears off of Hilary’s chocolate bunny every Easter. Prior to that I had absolutely no idea it was a tradition. But I made up for that with a vengeance.
Will you turn Judge Parker into Ted Forth: The Soap Opera?
Judge Parker and Sally Forth are and will remain two singular strips with their own story sensibilities, character motivations, and number of horses involved (despite Ted’s desire to rename the family “The Chadwells” because then it would sound like they own Andalusians). That’s the entire point of wanting to write two strips, so I can work in different genres, work on distinctive plots, and work through my own particular mental issues either through an atypical suburban family or a family that has apparently won Powerball 14 times. Besides, I’m already writing Ted Forth: The Soap Opera. In fact, next week we meet Ted’s evil twin brother, Dr. Hans Forth.
So then what kind of strip will Judge Parker be?
Judge Parker is a soap opera strip, and the hope is to embrace that with a giant bear hug sincerely, not satirically. In soap operas we like to see the moneyed experience and confront grander personal and professional problems, all the while realizing that their great assets cannot always buy them a quick solution (and may in fact only purchase far worse results). And being a comic with the very word “judge” right in its title, Judge Parker is also a law and order world, so stories can and should lend themselves to a noir feel. Yes, there will be humor. But it will not be a “humor” strip. (Whether or not it becomes an unintentionally humorous strip depends on how much I botch this gig.)
What about the current plot lines?
Let’s be frank but by no means dismissive. There are presently
a shit ton a metric shit ton a healthy number of A, B, and C plots running concurrently. And it is imperative to both honor and resolve those very plots, in complete respect to Woody Wilson’s longtime work in the strip and every reader who has invested their time following those very narratives. As for new directions, after about a month you may have a feel for where we’re going. Within two to three months you’ll know far more. Or we could just destroy everything save the stable and start fresh with a Gulliver’s Travels-inspired comic about talking horses called The Houyhnhnms. Oh, wait until they go on and on about golf.
And the cast?
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. Or as I said to Judge Parker artist Mike Manley during our first phone call, “You draw a preternaturally attractive cast of characters. Too bad they won’t be so pretty after the fire.” (Note because I realize I need to make said note: No one will burn in a fire.)
But the art will remain the same, right? RIGHT?!
Oh good lord, yes. Mike Manley is an absolute master of line, as anyone can discern by just looking at a single panel. Not only that, he has been an extremely patient and utterly invaluable archive of information regarding narrative threads, character backgrounds, and even the very physicality of various locations. As a comic writer I have been extremely fortunate to work with frighteningly talented artists, starting with Craig MacIntosh and now with Jim Keefe and Mike Manley. In truth, 90% of the reason I have faith in what I am doing is because I know they can turn even my most half-assed idea into stunning reality in print. And if you were a screenwriter who found out you get to work with Roger Deakins and James Wong Howe, you’d want to give them work that can employ all their senses of framing, lighting, and even casting. So my goal is to honor both strips with the filmic qualities Jim and Mike bring, thus ending my idea of 14 weeks of either Ted or Sam doing their community theater production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.
And finally, what’s with the poster up top?
It’s a teaser poster. Or maybe it just means we’re starting the first live-action comic strip. After all, with fewer people buying newspapers these days it was only a matter of time before we just had the characters show up at your house.