The End of a Weird, Slow-Moving Era Part 2

So what does the passing of Apartment 3G mean? Not much, really, except that it’s another step in the slow-motion collapse of the submedium of daily newspaper comics, which is so far the only submedium1 that will have died out in my lifetime. But it’s happening so slowly. Soap opera strips are actually the oldest form of reproduced serialized narrative that we can get new installments of today – they’re several decades older than television, and  even predate radio serials2.

1 a submedium here being defined, here, as a medium in conjunction with a delivery system – other submedia of comics, say, would include floppies or trade paperbacks.
2 the first serial comic strips were in the 1920s – Popeye among them – while the first radio soap operas and the like didn’t start until the 1930s – Popeye among them.

In part 1 I talked mostly about how weirdly anachronistic and displaced Apartment 3G was, and part of the reason for that was that it’s an interesting test case in how long these things can go on. Comic strips don’t die out as quickly as it seems they should3 – syndicates will run them forever on whoever they can get to draw/write them. So when one – especially one as far-ranging and venerable as Apartment 3G – ends, it seems like a big deal. Of course it almost, by definition, can’t be actually called a big deal, because if it were a big deal, people would be noticing it, and it wouldn’t be ending.

3 it’s often harder to notice when they do, however, because they’ll be re-run in zombie form for a long time. Popeye, for example, was phased out years ago and replaced with “classic” strips. The same happened more recently to non-serial Archie.
There’s actually another, much sadder, reason, that Apartment 3G might not actually be a mile marker on the march to serial comics irrelevancy. For the last several months, the strip has been beyond a formal metacommentary, and has descended into the realm of unregulated….problem. I’m not a doctor, and I’m not good at speculation, so I’ll set out some things4. The first is that it was apparent that no one was watching by how terrible the strip has been for several months. The storyline, putatively, is that Margo has hyperthyroidism5. This follows her wandering from site to site in the strip’s own non-urban, decidedly unpopulated, weirdly-colored Manhattan, the backgrounds sparse and blocky when they’re there at all. She’s currently in a hospital, and a bevy of former men in her life (a summary of which would both 1) take a very long time and 2) sound more outlandish than it needs to) are coming to visit her. It has completely superceded, and not followed at all from, the previous storyline, which was about Margo’s father marrying his maid, who was also Margo’s biological mother, which she didn’t know until a few years ago. But even the amount of lunacy contained therein isn’t really speaking to the full extent of the damage.

4 things which are, in their alarmingness, a large part of the reason for this piece, really.
5 this was revealed, like, two weeks ago. It has not, as far as I can tell, been set up at all, except by the preceding information, see above.

For the last several months, characters have wandered into and out of the story like a Pinter play, speaking on some bit of business or other, nigh-invariably as a pair of talking heads with some incongruous bit of background (some of the conversations that take place outside, surrounded by buildings, are labelled as taking place in restaurants, and then other, more different restaurants). The characters themselves have been changing their look from day to day – beyond just coloring5, the actual line art shifting – often to the point of unrecognizability, plus the weirdly-circular, go-nowhere story that wasn’t really being told, it was clear that there was very little editorial supervision6, and little publisher attention going on. Which is a shame, because one way or the other, it’s decidedly necessary.

5 coloring discrepancies are common, and are the result of the coloring of the strips being farmed offsite to do the coloring, so they don’t really signify anything is wrong other than that someone who couldn’t read the strip colored it in.
6 in addition to the above, it’s also worth noting that there are two people involved in the creation of Apartment 3G. In addition to artist Frank Bolle, the strip is written (although I’m unsure if this means she’s writing all of the dialogue and all of the narration, or just the story beats, or what) by Margaret Shulock.

There are, as far as I can tell, two options here. The first, which would require an expert opinion I am by no means qualified to give, is that there is something wrong with artist Frank Bolle. Maybe he’s losing his ability to draw, or recognize his own characters, or read a script or something. It’s possible there is something serious going on, and he could use help. Maybe a member of his family could have him draw a clock or something.

But the other, more likely, and also depressing, response, is that nobody cares. There are two people involved in the creation of the strip, and it goes out to press in such a half-assed, nonsensical form that it’s hard to believe that adults (both of whom are industry veterans and one of whom has other comic strips that she’s a part of) would not figure out a way to change the course of something if they were unsatisfied with it. So we’re left examining the fact that, since it’s there, since two people and at least one editor looked at it and deemed it fit to run, that this is the strip that’s good enough for people to see. That this is as good as they care to make it.

And that’s a shame, because it’s awful. Incoherent, badly-drafted, and generally not worth any time to read. It’s lost that metatextual appeal it once had in favor of just being a daily dose of light blithering. If it were less desultory, less insouciant about it, it might be fun to look at the machinery clanking on as it breaks down. As it is, though, we’re watching something fall apart into a heap of sighs. Not even going out with a whimper, but a kind of gentle whoosh.

So does the world lose something when it loses an already-borderline-nonsensical soap opera strip that hasn’t been timely ever in its existence? No. It doesn’t. There wasn’t much to gain out of Apartment 3G that couldn’t be easily duplicated elsewhere, in an easier-to-track form. And since even its creators7 seem to not care about it at all, you’re not even losing the inherent value of someone’s important work. It’s just bad news, all the way down.

7 really, even if it’s some kind of health problem, there’s still the option of retirement, or somehow addressing it,  or something – comics syndicates aren’t shy about personnel changes. Frank Bolle has, even within my memory, subbed in as an artist on a couple of different daily soap strips, we know they could bring somebody in to pinch hit for him. Again, this points to lack of concern, rather than lack of options.

So whether it’s just another routine casualty or the true sign of the serial comicspocalypse, the result is just about the same: a dying submedium has lost another major player, and crawls one more step toward its demise.

On the plus side, now June Morgan reigns supreme as The Hottest Lady on the Comics Page. That was a tough crown to hold onto, especially depending on the artist. I’m glad to see her pull through this one.

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