By Tom Ward
I have been a lifelong devoted fan of the newspaper comics strips and have seen and occasionally read the “Mary Worth” strip growing up. The “Mary Worth” comic strip first appeared in 1938, and is one of the longest-running continuity strips, or “comic page soap operas”, a genre dedicated to the millions of readers who thrive on continued stories told in brief daily episodes with cliffhanger endings. Until I spoke with my friend, who is a living legend in both the comic strip and comic book industry, I had no idea how popular and long-lasting the “Mary Worth”strip was.
Eighty-six year old Joe Giella is a comic artist icon who has drawn the “Mary Worth” strip for the past 23 years. Giella has worked in the comic book and comic strip business for a mind-boggling 69 years. He’s probably best known as the longtime artist and inker for DC comics on titles like “Batman”, “The Flash”, “Green Lantern” and “The Justice League.” During his long and illustrious career, Joe has worked as a comic book artist on almost every main character for DC and Marvel comics. Also, Giella was quite prolific as a daily comic strip artist, drawing the 1966-67 syndicated “Batman” newspaper strip during the height of the “Batman” television series back in the 60’s, as well as “The Phantom”, “Flash Gordon”, “Johnny Reb” and “Sherlock Holmes”.
During my recent phone call with Giella, he told me about working on the “Mary Worth” strip with his writing partner, Karen Moy. “I started doing the strip with John Saunders about 23 years ago,” said Giella. “At that time Saunders was the writer on the strip, a former TV anchor man based in Chicago. When his father passed away he took over the writing of the strip. Prior to me starting the strip they gave me some references. I noticed that Mary had little round black eyes from the way the previous artist drew her. They looked like little raisins. I thought to myself that it just doesn’t look right. So I gave John Saunders a ring and asked him, ‘What’s the deal on the eyes? I was thinking of making her eyes blue.’ He said, ‘I’m glad you called me because my mother always had blue eyes.’ I said, ‘Your mother? What does she have to do with the strip?’ John said, ‘Well, that’s what the character was based on. My father’s wife.’ It turns out she actually did have blue eyes. We worked together for quite a few years until he passed away. It turns out Karen Moy was on staff with King Features Syndicate and she was a ‘Mary Worth’ buff. The editor there at the time, Jay Kennedy, passed away from an accidental drowning accident. She was offered the job of writing ‘Mary Worth’.”
Giella was kind enough to get me in touch with Moy, who lives in New York city. Ms. Moy is a graduate of State University of New York at Binghamton with a degree in art. She took over the writing duties of ‘Mary Worth’ in 2004, and told me about working on the strip with Joe Giella.
“I knew Joe before I started writing ‘Mary Worth’,” said Moy. “He always struck me as a real gentlemen and I was also a fan of the ‘Mary Worth’ strip in general. I loved both the art and the stories. When the previous writer of ‘Mary Worth’, John Saunders, became ill, I tried out for the job, and based on my scripts, was hired by the editor as a temporary ghostwriter. After John Saunders’ death, it was a natural progression for me to continue to write the strip. I eventually received my own byline.”
During our conversation, I had to confess to Karen I wasn’t as familiar with the “Mary Worth” comic strip character as I was with other ones. Karen was so gracious to fill me in on what I’ve been missing all these years about the life of the fictional Mary Worth. “Mary Worth is a compassionate 60-something widow living in a condominium complex in Santa Royale, California,” said Karen. “She’s surrounded by neighbors and friends who often benefit from her advice. As a former teacher, she no longer works full-time, but does volunteer at the local hospital and occasionally fills in for her friend and neighbor, Willie Weston, who writes a newspaper advice column. She keeps busy by assisting with Charterstone condominium management, and her hobbies include cooking and gardening. She’s known among her friends as someone who gives good advice because of her wise, stable personality and her deep compassion for others.”
It turns out that Mary Worth has quite an extensive back story as Moy gave me more details on her history. “When she was younger she went to college in Ohio where she met her future Jack Worth,” stated Moy. “After they married and settled in New York, he found his calling as a stockbroker and became a whiz on Wall Street. His early death left her with a modest retirement fund which was enough to provide her with a comfortable, but not extravagant, lifestyle. Eventually, Mary moved to the West coast for a fresh start where, she met semi-retired physician and widower Dr. Jeff Cory. They started dating and continue to enjoy each other’s company to this day.”
I inquired about what her process was of coming up with storylines for the characters. “I’m interested in a lot of things and read a lot,” replied Moy. “I also like to watch TV and movies, peruse newspapers, surf the internet, and follow current news. There’s plenty of fodder out there for a good story. I like human interest stories, and stories about characters who change for the better after a catalyzing event. In fiction, as in life, there’s always hope for us humans to turn ourselves around and progress through teachable moments. I base character conversations on things I’ve heard, read, or thought. When I write a story, I summarize the entire story from beginning to end. I know how it’ll wrap up and where it’s going. I send the outline to Joe so that he, too, will know where the story’s headed. As I write the weekly strips, things often come up that are fresh and new. But the basic outline is followed.”
Speaking with Giella I asked how he gets the script from Karen. “She faxes it to me,” said Giella. “Prior to that process, a couple of weeks before the story ends she’ll call me and we’ll discuss what the new storyline is. We talk about the characters and then I’ll have to develop the look of new characters she has created. I remember one time we had one character look like the movie star George Clooney. She’s very good about sending me some references or a gal’s particular hairstyle.”
In the daily newspaper strip, “Mary Worth” is only two panels and runs in over 100 newspapers worldwide. “After you receive Karen’s script, how do you go about designing the layout of the story?” I asked Giella.
“Well, that’s the job of the artist,” replied Giella.”I read the script and then I try to capture as best I can what Karen is trying to tell the reader.”
After Giella gets the script and works out how the panels will look, he begins to draw and ink the script. “After I finish drawing and inking the original, what I do is put it on my copy machine and reduce the size of the artwork,” continued Giella. “Then I have a young lady named Nicole, who is my granddaughter, who is unbelievable with her computer knowledge. She goes ahead and scans it on the computer and then proceeds to electronically send the finished artwork on to Orlando, Florida. Nicole started doing the strip when she was 7 years old and she’s 15 now. She’s a brilliant little girl and does a terrific job. Orlando handles all the work for King Features Syndicate. Down there they process it and then they distribute the image to all the newspapers around the world.”
Giella has made working on the “Mary Worth” strip a family affair because his son, Frank, colors the Sunday paper for him. “My son Frank is a school teacher who teaches art history. He’s been coloring the “Mary Worth” Sunday page since I started. Frank has to color the Sunday page so they can follow it. A company in Addison, Texas does the color processing based on the sheets that Frank sends them. I give Frank the Photostat and then he colors everything on there and it’s very interesting what he has to do. He not only colors it, but he uses a color code for each color. I don’t know the exact code, but I’ll give you an example. He’ll color something yellow, but right adjacent to it he puts down YT6 which represents the code for the yellow value that he wants. If he wants a golden-yellow he has to put down a different code. The color code is provided to me by King Features, which they mail to me and you can’t deviate from it. The code number is more important than the color he puts down because that’s what the people in Addison follow,” said Giella.
Before ending my call with Giella, I asked him how long he thinks the “Mary Worth” strip will go on. “I remember when I was a little kid running around in Astoria, Queens playing stick ball when the strip first came out,” joked Giella. “I think you and I will be long gone before the ‘Mary Worth’ isn’t running anymore in newspapers, based on the letters that I get, and most of them are very positive. There’s a lot of constructive criticism and you can’t deviate from the strip. If the fans see something wrong, they will let me know. When the late John Saunders found out I was going to do the strip told me ‘Joe, I don’t know if you’re going to like doing this strip” I asked, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘You’re used to drawing superheroes flying off rooftops and crashing through windows.’ I did have a little trouble getting used to it in the beginning. Then you create interest with the characters and the facial expressions and the way that they move and the storyline. It is low-key, but the interest is there.”
A few weeks ago, Moy sent me a beautiful book called “Love and Other Stories of Mary Worth”. It was a great way for me to become more acquainted and get a crash course on the life and times of the “Mary Worth” character. I came away quite impressed with both the artwork that my friend Joe Giella drew and the highly imaginative storylines that Karen came up with that really grabbed my attention. I can see that Moy’s love of comics and storytelling are a perfect mix with Giella’s terrific artwork.
“Are there any similarities between you and your character Mary Worth that you write?” I asked Moy. “Like Mary Worth, I live in an apartment complex,” said Moy. “I enjoy quoting aphorisms and occasionally dispense advice. However, unlike the character, I’m not quite as handy in solving my neighbor’s personal problems”
When you get a moment please check out the website www.maryworthcomics.com to see what Mary’s up to next. I have to warn you that once you start reading the strip it can be quite addictive. Past storylines have confronted social issues such as juvenile delinquency, unwed motherhood, drug addiction, spousal abuse, alcoholism, infidelity, concerns of the elderly and the generation gap. The reader is asked to remember that “Mary Worth” stories are not about Mary. They are about a continuing parade of people who enter Mary’s life. If you look closely, you may recognize one of your neighbors, or even yourself. With the talented dynamic duo of Giella and Moy handling the daily duties of the strip the future looks bright and that makes reading this Mary worth it!
Tom Ward can be found at www.teetimewithtom.com.