Comics, strip down and soap up!

A lot of folks believe that my love of the comic strip Mary Worth has been a “work” or something done in jest. Nah, son! I love that comic—much to the delight of some and the abject horror of others. And even though my breathless Twitter recaps have stopped I still read the strip religiously.

So, of course, you know why I’m here.

I was a little disappointed after the May-December romance between Zak and Iris petered out in an unsatisfying fashion. I (and every poor soul who I had roped in with my recaps) had begun to root for Iris and hoped that in finding a new young love the character would also find her self-esteem and self-worth. I have to admit, I was at first horrified that the middle-aged Iris would get involved with a man young enough to be her son, but was rightfully embarrassed by my own bias after it was pointed out by friends. Age is but a number—for everyone who is not me. (Don’t bring any men of twenty-five ‘round here.)

After Iris and Zak ended their affair the strip spent a few weeks as a commercial for several cruise ship lines. The change in story direction was a bizarre and bland move that was difficult to explain to those I had spent so long convincing that Mary Worth was a treasure trove of surreal soap and occasional unintentional comedy. Unlike the titular character of my favorite strip it seemed as though my advice was not worth heeding.

Enter Derek and Katie Hoosier. The Hoosiers are about to have a marital problem in the form of a pneumatic lounge singer named Esme and I am so here for it, y’all. Mary Worth is back in business!

Kubler-Ross Change Curve

As the comic strip sails towards a new love triangle, it has caused me to reflect on how the soap opera genre changes to fit the medium that is its current method of delivery. As a former fan of monthly superhero comics and daytime dramas I’d grown used to ascending and descending A and B plots. Be it X-Men or All My Children, as one plot rushes toward its conclusion another is beginning to unfold. Daily television soaps have so many hours to fill with content each month that they often have concurrent A, B, and C plots—each claiming a third of the Kubler-Ross change curve.

I am new to daily dramatic comic strips, but it seems as though they do not follow a similar pattern. There is merely one plot. Once one has concluded, another begins. So can comic strips still be called soap operas when the format has been changed so radically? Yes, I believe so.

That said, I still wonder if limiting the number of plotlines is necessary. A daytime drama has roughly three hours of content a week to work within. A comic book has twenty-two pages a month. A comic strip has fifteen to twenty panels a week. One may feel that twenty panels aren’t sufficient to cover more than one plotline. However, I’d argue that a narration box containing the word meanwhile does wonders. I’d also argue that readers are often smarter than they are given credit for being!

Mary Worth’s wiles.

I love Mary Worth.

Many would be surprised by that admission. Not the poor souls who unfortunately follow me on Twitter and bear witness to my endless string of Mary Worth recaps, of course, but many others would be shocked.

It isn’t the strongest strip in syndication. That award would go to the high-stakes and action-oriented Judge Parker. However, it is a heartwarming and formulaic romance at its worst. At its best?

Mary WorthAt its best that strip is the sequential art version of the beloved and oft-mourned Passions, my dear friends. Child psychics, lovelorn women in witness protection, former Secret Service agents, unhinged stalkers, child abductees, and bigamist thieves all make an appearance in the sleepy coastal town of Santa Royale. The strip dips in plausibility occasionally only to ricochet into the heights of absurdity. And absurdity is where Mary Worth excels.

For as much as I champion romances, the truth of the matter is this: if it isn’t unintentionally funny or outrageous? I’m not interested. I need my romances to be riotous Punch and Judy shows that I can comb through with friends to cheer and jeer over various plot points. A good writer knows that a soap opera is a spectator sport as much as it is a story. Did you root for Sonny or Jax? Sami or Carrie? Natalie or Evangeline? (If your answers don’t include Evangeline you can leave this blog right now. Evangeline and Cristian forever.) The point is that fans are drawn to a particular character and remain engaged in the hopes that said character will “win”—be it a man, a company, or the downfall of their evil twin.

Writer Karen Moy is well aware of that fact, generally drawing clear lines between antagonists and protagonists and ensuring that her protagonists have the happy endings that her readers crave. Are the endings pat? Well, yes. But “endings” in serial dramas can be pat. What they must never be is unsatisfying. Moy heeds this rule carefully, making sure each character receives his just deserts.

While good storytelling abounds in comics, good soap is in short supply. Truthfully, good storytelling and good soap do not always work in tandem and you can easily have one without the other. I believe that many creators are disdainful of the soap opera formula (no matter how many fans crave it) and would prefer to ape a procedural or action-adventure instead. I would love to see the resurgence of the soap opera in mainstream comics, but until then? I’ll simply check in with Mary Worth.