Joe Giella and Karen Moy, Creators of Mary Worth

April 11, 2008

    A soap opera playing daily in the comics section of the newspaper, Mary Worth has held audiences waiting with bated breath since 1938. That's 70 years of dispensing advice or toying with lives, depending on the reader's view of the kind-hearted Mary, a widow in her mid-60s. A young cartoonist named Martha Orr was the originator of the drama strip, along with Allen Saunders and Dale Connor. Mary Worth storylines and penwork have been accomplished by several authors and artists over the decades. Seen in the past as stodgy, the latest team has brought fresh life to the strip: Karen Moy as writer and Joe Giella as illustrator.

     The storylines in Mary Worth are worthy of daytime television, and even more dramatic since Moy and Giella took over the strip. Dysfunctional families, suspicious stalker behaviour, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, romance and heartache are the subjects of the daily. With a dedicated following in 350 newspapers under the King Features Syndicate umbrella, fans await the next installment. Not a funny strip, it keeps readers coming back to see what will happen with the lead character and residents of Charterstone Condominium in Santa Royale, California. Will it be love? Will it be murder? Will fans be ready to accept modernization of characters?

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    The answer to the last question was a resounding no, at least not when Joe Giella took over as artist of Mary Worth in 1992, due to the death of cartoonist Bill Ziegler. The professional cartoonist was asked by King Features editors to give Mary Worth an updated look, take away a few of the wrinkles and give her a full slimming make-over. Take away the frumpy clothes, give her the sleek look that 60-somethings now have. Unfortunately, Joe did the work a little too quickly for readers, taking Mary Worth from a chubby grandma a woman that appeared to be much younger, and...sexy, even. Readers had a "snit fit" said one newspaper at the time. Giella brought back the wrinkles and Mary's modernization a little slower the next time.

     Joe Giella brings a history of cartoon art to Mary Worth. Born in Manhattan in 1928, he began his career in comic art with the School of Industrial Art and the Students Art League in New York City, New York. His continuing education was on hold for eight years, said King Features Syndicate, for a stint in the Navy Reserve.

    On return, he took positions as comic book artist with Marvel and DC Comics, drawing superheroes and villains. (For 40 years, Giella was an Inker with DC Comics.) Giella also created freelance art for advertising agencies Saatchi and Saatchi, McCann Erickson and others. Switching to comic strips, the busy cartoonist did the pencilling and inking on the "Batman" strip for four years, and assisted on two other classic action strips, "The Phantom" and "Flash Gordon."

     The cartoonist's style definitely had to change for the Mary Worth strip. "With superheroes, it's mostly action. Everything is exaggerated. With Mary, it's kind of a low-key soap opera. You have to try to create interest with expressions. A look on her face. Very rarely does anybody throw a punch," said Giella in a Palm Beach Post interview in 2006.

     With a BA in Studio Art from State University of New York, Karen Moy accepted the job of plotting and writing Mary Worth in 2004, on the passing of writer John Saunders (son of the early Mary Worth writer, Allen Saunders.) She added fresh drama, potential danger and a sudden, messy death to the script. Her flare for story telling has caused several buzzes, keeping the strip's cult status alive and bubbling.

     Taking a soap opera story that was about the people passing through Mary Worth's life, Moy took the interesting step of focussing the plot on Mary temporarily. Nearing 70, she has a boyfriend, a doctor who is away on a foreign medical mission. Then she had another man crazy about her - a Captain Kangaroo look-alike called "Kelrast" that turned stalker - who suddenly wound up dead in a car crash. The events caused a tidal wave of fan discussions. Sites popped up to talk about the updated strip. Moy seems to appreciate her main character. "I hope she can be an example of compassion and wisdom in this hectic world that we live in," said the writer in an interview with the Pittsburg Post-Gazette in March 2007.

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     Under the skilled direction of Karen Moy and Joe Giella, Mary Worth is solving problems and easing the miseries of those around her in modern style. The strip has lead the way for other serious series strips in the funny pages, such as "The Heart of Juliet Jones," "Apartment 3-G" and the very popular "For Better or For Worse." Seventy years later, still aged 68 and looking better than ever, Mary Worth is now bringing a new generation of readers to the comics pages.  That's worth applause for a job well done.

     See the King Features site for more about inimitable Mary Worth.

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© Susanna McLeod 2008
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