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'Judge Parker' Cartoonist On Comic Strip's Election Storyline

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn our attention to the election once again. No, not that one. This one takes place in the "Judge Parker" universe. That is the classic comic strip created in 1952 that follows the life of small-town Judge Alan Parker and his family. It's been kind of crazy in recent years since the current team took over. There have been assassins, secret double agents. The judge went to prison. You know, normal small-town stuff. But a recent storyline involved the character Toni Bowen, a young woman of color, a former journalist running an insurgent campaign for mayor against an entrenched, self-involved, Trump-esque figure. Spoiler alert - the Trump-esque incumbent won.

Now, we've talked with "Judge Parker" author Francesco Marciuliano before on this program about the themes in the strip. He's been writing this comic since 2016. He's also the writer of "Sally Forth," another popular syndicated comic. And he is with us now to tell us what happened. Francesco Marciuliano, thank you so much for joining us once again.

FRANCESCO MARCIULIANO: Thank you for calling me back.

MARTIN: So tell me a little bit more about the election in the "Judge Parker" universe, as it's been very interesting watching this - the strip - because you've tried to bring contemporary issues in without kind of losing the character of the strip. And the last time we talked, we talked about the fact that "Judge Parker" actually went to prison. And you surfaced a lot of issues that really are in the public dialogue, you know, issues around conditions in prisons, mass incarceration and so forth. So why did you decide to have an election?

MARCIULIANO: You being an avid reader of comic strips know that most comic strips need to be apolitical. So I couldn't do a strip about the presidential election, so I created this one instead. So it allowed me to address it without going down any party lines.

MARTIN: Toni is very contemporary as a character in the sense that she's reluctant to this. I mean, she's not a career politician. She gets into this because she feels that she needs to Address things that aren't being addressed in her town. Her campaign initially is really kind of run on fumes (ph) and young people - right? - young people who are attracted to her message, one in particular. But - and I know that you have to turn the strips in several weeks in advance, which is when news is happening quickly sometimes means there's a lag, and you wind up, you know, changing course. But how come you had her lose - or rather, you had the incumbent win?

(LAUGHTER)

MARCIULIANO: You know, when that day strip came out - and, I mean, obviously in a soap opera strip, things do not happen rapidly. I wanted someone who said, OK, no one's saying this. Someone has to. As to the question of why she lost, it's basically - one, again, without going into political lines - the strip needs a villain.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK.

MARCIULIANO: The strip needs a villain in power. A strip needs a villain in power who has a lot of land holdings and has blurred the line between business and politics. And I'm really not hiding anything at this point.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MARCIULIANO: I mean, I'm doing it to the point that my syndicate doesn't immediately get on the line, it's like, yeah we need to talk. But - so that's what it was. I needed a villain.

MARTIN: So you're trying to stay this side of the line of like just - but yeah - because are some similarities, let's just say. Here's a person who, you know, for whose interest in politics seems very closely aligned with his interest in his own personal economic standing, let's just say. Can I just ask you this, though - your work is kind of solitary under normal circumstances, but you bring the world in. That has been your work. You bring whatever is in the world into your work, which is solitary. For a lot of people, that's a new experience. For you, it is not. Has this changed the way you think about your work in any way?

MARCIULIANO: I use the comic strips, both "Judge Parker" and "Sally Forth," to deal with whatever's going on in my head. And sometimes it's nonsense because I got a lot of nonsense in my head. But they've always been means of me to go, OK, I've been thinking this through. Let me just put it in there. And if you write a comic strip long enough, you basically put in an environment, put the characters there, and then you let them talk to one another. And you're essentially just doing frontline reporting of what they're saying.

But yeah, I mean, it allows me to deal with things. That's why, when the pandemic hit, there was no question that everyone's going to wear masks. And we did get blowback from that. I mean, some people were saying in September, why are they still wearing masks? Which is a problematic statement to see. And the comic strip allows me to experience the world, allows me to bring in the world. So in a lot of ways, it's been business as usual because this is the way I've always written the strip. It's been heightened. And I feel very fortunate I have the comics to work this through in my mind. Hopefully the readers don't see like I'm inflicting it on them, but this is how I handle it.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we'll keep watching. That was Francesco Marciuliano. He is the writer of the syndicated comic strips "Judge Parker" and "Sally Forth." Francesco Marciuliano, thank you so much for talking to us.

MARCIULIANO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.