The Next Page: Every little thing she does
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Mary Worth seems to have always been with us. Generations have followed her activities ("adventures" seems too strong a word) in the pages of U.S. newspapers. She's dispensed advice to her friends and neighbors since FDR was in the White House, remaining in the same 60-ish age range as wars and recessions have come and gone outside the confines of her two-panels-a-day world. Somehow, she's survived the Darwinian laws of American entertainment that usually kill off the old, lame and slow. Lately, I've been wondering why.
The Post-Gazette readers' poll conducted last fall helped crystallize my thinking about "Mary Worth." It seems that her strip came in dead last in popularity -- an achievement of sorts, considering how innocuous most comic strips are. As I've subsequently learned, other newspapers have discovered how Mary polarizes their readerships.
Last year, for instance, the Akron Beacon Journal received a flurry of angry letters after they dropped the strip. It's clear that, despite her sweetness, the lady has both advocates and enemies. (About 350 papers carry the strip at present, incidentally.) Ever since I was a youngster, "Mary Worth" has been the butt of jokes. Forty years ago, Carol Burnett used to do skits on her TV program about "Mary Worthless"; more recently, "The Simpsons" has invoked her name as a symbol of stodginess. This sort of mockery only proves that she is a symbol -- or more properly, an archetype.
he slightly doughy but innately elegant Mary embodies a civility that is fading out of real life. Moreover, the very pace of the strip conveys something profound: that time is a variable concept, regulated by perception. In this sense, the comic strip "Mary Worth" is more interactive and transformative than the most cutting-edge IT entertainment. Stories take months or entire seasons to unfold; a single afternoon inside Mary's condo complex can translate to a week's worth of strips. The reader must slow down -- almost on a metabolic level -- to get in sync with the proceedings.
Even by comic strip standards, "Mary Worth" moves at a leisurely pace -- by comparison, the likes of "Rex Morgan, M.D." hit the eyeballs with the velocity of a Jerry Bruckheimer action film. Like a Kabuki play, Mary Worth's stories unfold rather formally, marked by ritualized speech and poses.
The strip's characters are almost always shown from the waist up, contributing to the still-life portrait look of each panel. Plots advance by a sort of peristaltic motion toward crisis points -- the strip is, after all, a soap opera. Emotional gales buffet the pale walls of the Charterstone Condominium Complex and swirl around Mary, sometimes nearly engulfing her. Last fall, the drama level picked up a bit -- a confrontation with a Captain Kangaroo-lookalike stalker named Aldo Kelrast led to his death in a drunken driving accident.
But it's hard to imagine many people reading the strip for excitement. The effects of following "Mary Worth" are more subtle, more cumulative, like those of a time-released pill or a blow to the head that takes days to register.
s the decades have passed, Mary Worth has truly become sui generis. There is nothing else in American entertainment quite like it. In this era of quick spurts of hype and flash, when an "interactive Web-based serial" like "lonelygirl15" can become the Flavor of the Nanosecond, Mary Worth stands apart as a true exotic. More than anything, it impresses by just continuing to continue.
Change doesn't come easily to this hermetically sealed world -- when it does, it's definitely noticed. Joe Giella recalls what happened when he started drawing the strip in 1991: "My editor said, 'Take out some of the lines in Mary Worth's face.' So I streamlined her. A lot of fans got upset -- the L.A. Times ran a headline asking, 'Who gave Mary Worth a face-tuck?' I thought it was the end of my job." Giella restored some of Mary's wrinkles and weathered the firestorm.
"It was hard for me to get used to doing this strip," he continues. "I'd been drawing super-heroes for a long time, and I don't think anyone has thrown a punch in Mary Worth in 30 years. I said, 'There's nothing going on here.' But now I'm into it."
Giella follows a template that was largely established some 70 years ago. That's the secret of the strip's longevity, he feels: "It's consistent -- Mary doesn't change. She's just a good-hearted, helpful person. People are just used to seeing the strip and they stay loyal to it."
t might surprise some to know that the recent stories in "Mary Worth" are fast-paced compared with those featured in past strips. John Saunders, son of the strip's co-creator, would sometimes take up to 18 months to resolve a plot. After his death in 2004, Karen Moy took over the writing duties and began to pick up the tempo -- about three stories are now completed each year, she says.
With Moy at the helm, "Mary Worth" has gingerly ventured into new territory. Traditionally, the focus of the strip has been on Mary's friends, not Worth herself. Lately, though, her shadowy inner world has been explored -- besides fending off a stalker, she's dealt with feelings of resentments toward a new neighbor (nonagenarian psychic Ella Byrd) and proven her long-simmering affection for widowed doctor Jeff Corey by standing by him during a life-threatening illness at a clinic in Vietnam. Moy promises further plot twists and unexpected revelations in the future.
Whatever spice is added to the stories, the essential "Mary Worth" formula will continue to be adhered to. In my opinion, the plots are almost beside the point -- the strip is read because of who Mary is, not for what she does. Moy doubtlessly speaks for longtime readers when she describes Mary's appeal as a person: "She's always been a force of compassion and wisdom, someone you can rely on. She does show human traits, like jealousy, self-doubt, fear and remorse. But she always handles herself with dignity."
There's a glow to Moy's words that suggests she's describing a saint, not a matronly condo-dweller. As is often true of revered personages, Mary has attracted loyalists who remain devoted over a lifetime. "It's like a cult," says Giella. "They watch everything I do -- I get over 12-15 letters a month and they aren't always complimentary."
Conversely, Mary's saint-like qualities are what make her a punch line: "Maybe it's because it's easy to poke fun at a character who promotes ideals like compassion," says Moy. "This isn't a very idealistic world, and some people gravitate toward characters that are sarcastic or bitter."
I suspect that Mary's selflessly giving nature is directly related to the pacing of her strip. In her world, there is time for long pauses between thoughts and actions, to carefully consider the needs of others before offering the right words of advice or solace. There is time to linger at your front door if a neighbor is in trouble -- who cares if the conversation drags on for a week or two?
ll this goes against the grain of our age, of course. But I would suggest that reading "Mary Worth" can be a wake-up call as well as an act of daily meditation. We dismiss her at our peril.
Just as the glacial ice of the polar regions is melting under the effects of human-induced global warming, so the glacial pace of "Mary Worth" may be doomed in today's overheated entertainment climate. And, as the great ice shelves are assets we cannot afford to lose, so the anachronistic tempo and quaint sense of decency in "Mary Worth" are something not lightly thrown away.
Here's at least one reader who wishes Mary to remain right where she is, a little window into a lost world of torpid motion and gentle spirits.
"In every situation, I always try to do the kindest thing possible"
-- Mary Worthike an angel, she exists on a higher plane, hovering on the edges of private thought and collective memory. She is a Presence in mass American culture, more enduring than typical three-dimensional celebrities and more familiar than most of our presidents. Millions have encountered her repeatedly and many would recognize her on sight. Some think she's ridiculous; quite a few others consider her a comforter, a friend.
Barry Alfonso is a journalist and author living in Swissvale. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Next Page is different every week.
-- John Allison (email@example.com) 412-263-1915
-- Stacy Innerst, illustrations
First Published March 4, 2007 12:00 am