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25 Years Ago Today I Moved in with the Forths

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on December 29, 2022

December 29, 1997

Today marks the 25th anniversary of when my very first Sally Forth strip appeared in print. Hence all the unattended parades you are seeing this morning, consisting of a single float that shows what it would have been like if Ted Forth had been in Thundercats. (It mostly would have been him desperately trying—but repeatedly failing—to impress Cheetara.)

And like all anniversary stories, this is in the end a rambling, uncalled for/unprompted anecdote that delights only the speaker and tries the listeners’ patience as they see how long they can maintain a rictus of exhaustion while blinking “Do something” to their partner who keeps tapping in Morse code on their thigh “They’re YOUR friend” until someone says, “Sooooo…should we get the check/get the car/get the fuck out of here?”

See, way back in August 1997, a few days before my 30th birthday (yes, yes, the server is bringing your check), I received a call from King Features Editor-in-Chief Jay Kennedy. He said that while he was passing on my recent comic submission, he wanted to know if I’d like to work on one of their long-running properties, Sally Forth. The creator of the comic, Greg Howard, was moving on, selling his half of the rights back to the syndicate, and they were looking for someone to take over writing duties. I think my reply “YES!” was so immediate–occurring between his saying “Sally” and “Forth”–that Jay quickly guessed that maybe I had no real idea what comic he was talking about. That’s when he asked if I had ever actually read Sally Forth, to which I could only sheepishly reply, “I’m sure it’s a very good strip.” This is because the strip never ran in any of my hometown newspapers growing up. Instead, it was a comic I only saw when visiting relatives, like Funky Winkerbean or Kudzu or Captain Tumult and the Turmoil Brigade, a long-running sci-fi strip about intergalactic merchant marines that may not have existed but definitely had a cat named “Bongo McPOW!”

Now, I should point out that at this time Sally Forth already had a new writer—Steve Alaniz—who has been working on the strip for a few months. As we both understood it, we would alternate weeks writing, which was fair in terms of exposure but did make it near impossible to maintain consistent character arcs, so that one week Sally could be charged with triple homicide and the next the Forths are blissfully engaged in spring cleaning, leading one to believe that either Sal had a remarkable lawyer who scored her house arrest or the murders actually never occurred and the strip was finally becoming the American Psycho movie homage it was always meant to be. What Steve and I later learned, only after all was said and done, was that we were to our surprise competing against each other to be the sole author of the comic. The fact that I am writing the strip to this day may have less to do with merit and more that I lived within walking distance (for me, anyway) to King Features offices, and so I could quickly arrive when Jay yelled out his window “Marcilonimio! Get your worthless ass in here now!” (Note: This is in no way what Jay sounded like.)

And so within two days of that call I received a package consisting of nine full years of printed (remember, 1997 and also I didn’t own or could afford a computer) Sally Forth strips. Naturally, the first thing I did upon receiving all those comics was to completely disregard that I had been hired to write the strip and instead taught myself how to ape the artwork so I could immediately draw this…

(A few years later while I was officially the writer Jay called me up and said, point blank, “You’re making Ted crazy.” I said I was only having Ted react the same way I would in similar situations. He calmly responded, “I know.”)

So then after sketching out all the plot lines I could never use, I went about my actual of business of studying what I was going to write. Now, one of the best (by which I mean “easiest” or “hackneyed”) ways to write for characters you have no real knowledge of and a strip that’s completely alien to you is to immediately focus on a whole different collection of never-before-seen characters that can serve as the necessary engine of the plot. In retrospect, I could quickly and professionally explain this approach away by referring to the screenwriter’s or playwright’s crucial storytelling tactic of “Why this day?” As in “Why are we meeting the characters for the first time on this particular day?” And of course, my answer would be, “Because a foreign aspect or entity has been introduced into their otherwise normal lives.” And of course, that explanation would be complete bullshit since most readers had been introduced to the characters almost 16 years earlier. But they were indeed new to me, and that was a problem.

Another reason I wanted to just toss in new characters out of nowhere was because I wanted to name someone in the strip after friends of mine, the Bracks (which is the same reason George Lucas had a character named “Steve Lippman” in his original draft of Star Wars before Lucas realized Han Solo probably didn’t need to run into and have a 23-minute chat with his old college roommate). I even mentioned this intention to my editor Jay, who then had me change the neighbor’s surname in the completely understandable realization that its best never to leave the company open to lawsuits. (I realized they were now “The Klurns” the day of publication.) I have since learned my lesson and now I NEVER tell the syndicate when I am using a real person’s name. As of 2022 I can safely say 95% of the characters out of the core cast are named after my dear friends and if you are one reading this right now and thinking, “Wait, why I haven’t I appeared in the strip yet?” don’t worry. The Forths keep meeting people and one day you will be able to say, “I was the guy Ted hit with his car and then kept driving!” (As for the Klurns, it in no way helped that I defined them as they most trite, TV-style stereotype of elitists possible, thereby telegraphing every single unpleasant personality conflict that would arise in the story. I really should have just written, “The Wealthytons are coming on their diamond encrusted hover penthouse to sneer at our lack of Rembrandts.” Next time I do a plot like this I’m just going to invite over Thurston Howell III and Lovey.)

Much as changed about Sally Forth (whether good or bad) but what has never changed is the fact I would not be here at all without the help of so, so many people—My parents, who when I said at age eight I wanted to be a humor writer/cartoonist didn’t say, “You know. third grade is a little early to be choosing a career, especially when vascular surgeon is waiting right there on the table.” My high school friends, who would kindly, thankfully read my comics and writings, not simply because I used their names, but also printing them out to such a large degree I almost got kicked out of high school for slander and had to find out my script about my science teacher calling his colleague about how to have sex with his wife was available for reading in the teacher lounge. (This news terrified me to such a degree I wrote a sequel.) My dear college friends, who when I told I still wanted to be a humor writer/cartoonist didn’t respond, “Listen, you already chose English as your major. Why keep hobbling yourself professionally and personally?”

And of course Jay Kennedy, who with one call made this all possible and became not simply my boss but a mentor and a friend. My editor Brendan Burford, who encouraged me to always follow my own narrative impulses and gave me the remarkable opportunity to write Judge Parker as well. The absolutely wonderful and talented Sally Forth artist Craig Macintosh, who I never met in person but in all his correspondences proved again and again to be a remarkably sincere, kind, thoughtful human being. The immensely, preternaturally talented Jim Keefe, who can draw everything, who I ask to draw everything, and who can make any idea a reality and a visual wonder. (And again, who I yet to meet in person and so neither of us is absolutely sure the other one exists.) My incredible editors Jennifer Beck and Ealish Waddell, who give me remarkable free rein yet are on top of every detail, letting me know that I can’t name a video game “The Knifing of Knife Hill: Knifer’s Edition.” King Features, who continue to make an eight-year-old Ces’s dream a continuous reality. And to all of you, who by reading Sally Forth keep that dream alive.

I’ll end this by mentioning that the way I have by Ted peering out the window in my first strip is undeniably creepy. It’s as if he’s on guard while Sally quickly buries the meth set prior to the DEA’s inevitable launch on the Forth compound, a plot that today I would honestly mull over before realizing a lot of other people have to attach their name to this as well.

Thank you all.

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5 Responses

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  1. Carl Pietrantonio said, on December 29, 2022 at 12:04 pm

    Well, say what you will about anything, and you likely will, at that. You and Jim turn out one of the finest, deepest and most enchanting comic strips of the present day, in my opinion. I have 3 faves and this is one of them. Congratulations on your Anniversary of realizing a dream held by so many and achieved so well by so few.

    Keep writing and Jim drawing and as far as I am concerned, you have a fan for life. Thanks every day for the great work you do!

    (I promise to wait to cash the check this time. I swear.)

  2. Bill said, on December 29, 2022 at 1:29 pm

    I’ve read Sally Forth since the early Greg Howard days and I’m reminded that there are 3 constants in this world. The best version of Fleetwood Mac was Nicks, Buckingham, Christine McVie, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood. The best version of the Temptations was Ruffin, Kendricks, Otis Williams, Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin. And the best version of Sally Forth is Marciuliano and Jim Keefe. You two have made the Forth family real and their life experiences believable (except maybe the Swamp Thing that talked to Hil). Congratulations on a strip being done well!

  3. Usual John said, on December 29, 2022 at 1:47 pm

    Ces, it has been a great 25 years. Sally Forth continues to be one of my favorite strips. I really like the way that you’ve broadened the focus and fleshed out the characters, particularly Ted and Hilary. I concur with the view that the Marciuliano/Keefe version of Sally Forth is best (although I confess to a weakness for the Wally Wood version).

  4. Carl Fink said, on December 29, 2022 at 11:01 pm

    I’ve been reading all along, and I just now realized in the “Can’t stop shaving” strip, Sally is looking at Ted’s presumably denuded crotch.

  5. John Small Berries said, on December 30, 2022 at 10:21 am

    As someone who remembers you taking over, the fact that it’s been 25 years brings to mind Luke Skywalker’s response to Darth Vader’s plot twist announcement in the bowels of Cloud City.

    I’d never been much of a fan of Sally Forth prior to then (I read it, because it was on the comics page), but it quickly became apparent that it was now in the hands of someone on the same general humor and cultural wavelength that I was, and it soon became one of my favorite strips. (The behind-the-scenes glimpses you give here only heighten my enjoyment of it.)

    Congratulations on 25 great years, and I hope you have many more!


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