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'Judge Parker' Comic Strip Writer Explores Realities Of Prison Life


The hit Netflix show "Orange Is The New Black" just wrapped its final season. It was a critical and fan favorite for its dark comedy and sharply-drawn characters but also because it was one of a number of shows, like "Oz," that have tried to shine a light on prison conditions. And that story is also being told in an unusual place - a comic strip.

Fans of "Judge Parker," a serial created in 1952 that follows the life of small-town judge Alan Parker and his family, will have noticed that Judge Parker's storyline has taken a hard turn. He is in prison and, as of the last strip, recovering from a brutal beating at the hands of other inmates when they found out that he was a judge. It's the latest twist in a plot that's turned the comic strip into a platform for educating readers about the troubling realities of prison life. It's a lot to take on in a few illustrated panels, so we've called up the writer of "Judge Parker," Francesco Marciuliano. He took over the strip in 2016, and he's also the writer of "Sally Forth," another popular syndicated comic.

Francesco Marciuliano, thanks so much for joining us.

FRANCESCO MARCIULIANO: Oh, thank you very much.

MARTIN: So we've spoken to you before. And I'm not going to get into all the details about why Judge Parker is in prison because it's a little crazy. But I'm just going to kind of summarize to say that he was, in a way, trapped. He thought he was doing the right thing, and this is what happened. And I just have to ask - you know, where did this come from? Where did you get the idea to follow this storyline?

MARCIULIANO: Well, I will say he's not so much trapped. He did do the wrong thing, and he knowingly did the wrong thing for what he believed were for the right reasons. But he still did break the law. So there was going to be some sort of comeuppance in regard because I didn't want to do it where he does something illegal, and it's, like, but it's the main character. Let it slide. On the other hand, the idea was to show that once he's there, exactly where he's sending people.

MARTIN: And one of the reasons I found this interesting is there are comics like "Doonesbury," for example, that are known for taking on topical issues, but that has always been the flavor of "Doonesbury." As I said before, this is a legacy comic. I mean, it started in 1952. The people who've been reading this comic aren't necessarily used to this. And I'm wondering how people - or how are your fans, how are the readers of the comic are taking it?

MARCIULIANO: I - we'll use the word fans.


MARCIULIANO: This is a legacy strip. And I'm not trying to go, OK, now I'm just going to make it so now, and it's going to be thing. But on the other hand, you never want any strip or anything to be caught in amber, and you do want it to always be moving and feel like it's alive. So - now, granted, we do have the fantastic elements. Assassins appear regularly in this strip...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MARCIULIANO: ...So I'm not...


MARCIULIANO: By no means am I going, you know, this is frontline. But it's a thing that - I want the strip to feel like it's happening somewhere in this country as opposed to just on the paper.

MARTIN: What's inspiring you to take on this issue of - I don't want to make it sound sort of dry, but, like, this issue of mass incarceration, this issue of what actually happens in prison? What is it that got you interested in this?

MARCIULIANO: I know someone whose father has been incarcerated a few times, and I - and someone who has worked with social programs with prisoners. And I like comic strips where there is a gray area. I like it where you don't go, that's the good guy, which is why I wanted him to make a mistake and have him make - he made a choice - and have to make that choice, and then the consequences of that. Because if you write a strip where it's, like, these are the good guys, and that's the one twirling their mustache, at least for my sake, I get bored.

So it was like, OK. I want to do something. This is a legal strip. We almost never handle legal issues. It's always a soap opera strip. So it was a matter of, like, let's do a legal thing. I know we're not going to do a court case because that's visually dull. But if we do a prison, that, at least - I'm not saying it hasn't been done in a strip. That would probably be a lie. But I haven't seen that recently.

MARTIN: Are you hoping that perhaps you might reach people who aren't going to watch "Orange Is The New Black?" I mean, are you hoping in a way that you'll connect with people who just aren't interested any other way?

MARCIULIANO: I hope so. I'm not going to make the grand statement like, I'm the one who's going to turn them around on this. That's not how it works. But I think it's interesting for someone to see something that they normally wouldn't see and just look at it. Like, I don't mean to go sideways, but when I did "Sally Forth," I had Ted's dad pass away because my dad had passed away the year before. And I did the whole aspect of what that meant - doing the funeral arrangements, the after-effect of everything. And there were people who wrote to me thanking me very much for it.

There were also a lot of people wrote to me - it's, like, I go to a comic strip for laughs - which is not something I agree with. They certainly are welcome to their opinion, and that's perfectly fine. But strips like this work best if there is at least a little - at least is a foot on the ground in reality. And so that's what drives some of these stories. Again - I know, this is a comic strip that regularly has assassins - but I like that, at least, you feel that sometimes the strip is touching actual soil.

MARTIN: That is Francesco Marciuliano. He writes the "Judge Parker" and "Sally Forth" comic strips. Francesco, thanks so much for talking to us once again.


MARTIN: I can't wait to see what happens.

MARCIULIANO: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Do you want to tell me, hint?

MARCIULIANO: You know what? I wrote that three months ago, so I'm kind of forgetting.

MARTIN: OK. All right.

MARCIULIANO: (Laughter).

MARTIN: All right.

MARCIULIANO: We'll find out together tomorrow.

MARTIN: OK. Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.

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