Tuesday, October 28, 2014


[1] Jane Arden panel drawn by Jim Seed, October 11, 1958

by John Adcock

“A novel designed to attract the million must be moral; virtue must always triumph in the end; and if a somewhat sentimental tone is thrown in; so much the better.” — ‘Sensational Literature,’ The Reader, Saturday, November 12, 1864
[2] April 24, 1954

‘SOAP OPERA’ was a term coined about 1940 to describe sentimental radio serials promoted to ‘the millions’ by sponsors of soap, coffee, cleanser and personal deodorant. The soaps were nothing startlingly new or original — they had their genesis in the early nineteenth century in stage melodrama and penny parts serials. Thomas Peckett Prest serialized Fatherless Fanny; or, the Mysterious Orphan (1841), in Reynolds’s Miscellany James Malcolm Rymer serialized The Divorce, a Story of Fashionable Life (1859), and George Biggs’ Family Herald (1843) offered weekly serials almost exclusively tailored to women. 

[3] Motion Picture Magazine, 1916

The first film serial was What Happened to Mary? (1912) which was followed up by Who Will Marry Mary? Her monthly tribulations had been serialized by Frederick Lewis in McClure’s Ladies World before being adapted to the silent screen.

[4] August 2, 1958
Comic strip soap opera’s heroes and heroines were solidly white middle class supporters of the status quo. The villains were not of the horrid Dick Tracy sort, like Mumbles or The Mole, rather they were mostly indistinguishable from the middle class heroes. Jane Arden’s handsome villains sometimes sported an identifying moustache, occasionally a crooked nose, but usually they resembled that clean-cut boy next door.

[5] Friday Foster
When Nicholas P. Dallis tried introducing a black maid into Rex Morgan in 1953 he was “stunned” to receive an avalanche of mail decrying the strip. He “got scared off” using black characters from then on. Black (and then only middle class) characters did not make an appearance in the soap strips until publication of Dateline: Danger! (1968-74) and Friday Foster (1970-74).

Friday Foster began in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It was written by Jim Lawrence, who served his apprenticeship on the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, Jr. series of boys books. The illustrator was Jorge Longaron of Barcelona, Spain. His work would be very familiar to readers of the weekly comic magazine Pilote in France and of various British girls comic annuals. 

[6] July 25, 1959
“…To sell tomorrow’s newspaper, he (the strip writer) must tell a serial story with the brevity of a telegram…” — Allen Saunders

WHILE I was growing up the Queen of the comic strip soap operas was Ernst and Saunders’ Mary Worth which was escapism of a high order. Spinsterish Mary was a biddy, a nosey parker, a rubberneck, a busybody and a buttinsky. I can still recall to my mind’s eye the pinched lip and glowering eye on Mary’s face as she scorned some man who had tampered with the affections of one of her wards. Ken Ernst drew Mary Worth’s facial features to resemble that of writer Allen Saunders wife Lois.

“I (Ernst) was absorbed with the way Lois looked. I’m not sure, but I think Lois actually, maybe even subconsciously, changed her looks a little to look like Mary. She even wears her hair in a bun.” —‘Mary Worth is a Team Effort’, Pittsburgh Press, April 12, 1978

Mary Worth began as Apple Mary by Martha Orr, but it was not the first soap opera of the funnies. That was Sidney Smith’s humorous serial The Gumps debuting on February 12, 1917. Allen Saunders credited Sol Hess, a successful Chicago jeweler and gag-writer, for the success of the strip. Similar humorous soap strips were The Nebbs by Sol Hess and Walter Carlson (May 22, 1923), Mom’n Pop by Wood Cowan (1928?) and Boots and Her Buddies (1924).

[7] Scriptwriter Sol Hess makes an appearance in The Gumps, January 14, 1920

More realistic approaches were taken by the creators of Dixie Dugan (Oct 1928) and Jane Arden (Nov 1928). Apple Mary used a similar approach beginning in 1932.

Mary Worth eventually had three scriptwriters working simultaneously. Allen Saunders son John Saunders began working on the scripts as early as 1948 and eventually took over the writing from his father. He had his own strip, Dateline: Danger! and assisted on Steve Roper and Mike Nomad. The third writer was Ken Ernst Jr. whose father once observed “he thinks like Mary Worth.”

Ken Ernst was the guardian over the propriety of the strip. By 1976 the tastefully done depiction of 17 year old character Karen Cooper’s unwanted teen pregnancy ran without complaint but did generate a lot of press coverage. 

[8] October 11, 1958

Another long-running strip was Jane Arden by writer Monte Barrett and artist Frank Ellis published by Register and Tribune Syndicate on November 26, 1928. Jane Arden was ‘soap opera’ from its beginnings through 1968, although the term was not current until the nineteen forties. Compared to The Gumps and its copycats, Jane Arden was drawn in a very realistic style.

[9] June 10, 1937

Barrett was replaced as writer by Walt Graham in 1952 and later artists included Russell E. Ross (1935-52), Jim Seed, William Hargis and Bob Schoenke. The strip was very popular in Canada. Jim Seed was the artist I remember. I have a small run of the following tale about wiseguys putting pinball machines in candy stores to turn the teens on to gambling. I actually remember reading this when it came out, in the 1956 Star Weekly. I was six years old. Allen Saunders could have explained my interest (diverted from Donald Duck and The Fox and the Crow). The strip writer “strives to chart a story course which will interest intelligent adults without baffling ten year olds.”

[10] January 28, 1956
JIM SEED drew his panels with clean lines and simple backgrounds. He was born James E. Seed in 1927 in Toledo, Ohio. His first comic strip work was on Don Dean’s Cranberry Boggs (1945-49) and Dr. Guy Bennett (1955-56). Jane Arden, which he drew from 1955-60, was the only strip he signed but Seed also contributed ink to Steve Roper, Judge Parker and Rex Morgan, M.D.

Seed died in 2010.        
[11] January 3, 1970

Rex Morgan M.D. (Allen Saunders had a hand in its creation) would be on the top of my list of favorite pen and ink confessions. Psychiatrist Dr. Nicholas P. Dallis – pen names: Nick Dallis and Dal Curtis — scripted the strip which was drawn with dark style by Frank Edgington and Marvin Bradley. It began appearing in 1948. Given the chance this excellent team could have drawn a nice hard-boiled detective strip. Imagine a comic strip adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice by Edgington and Bradley.

[12] July 25, 1959
DANGER IN GIVEAWAYS. Among the public service comic book giveaways for 1952 was one called Trapped, published by the Committee on Narcotics of the Welfare Council of New York City. Dr. Dallis took his professional duties seriously and educated the public about drugs, alcoholism and mental illness through his comic strip scenarios. It was recognized by publishers that “there is a potential danger of giving to youth the detailed description of how narcotics are taken.”

[13] May 14, 1960
Judge Parker was begun in 1952 with artist Dan Heilman drawing until 1965. Dallis and artist Alex Kotzky introduced Apartment 3-G in 1961.

[14] November 22, 1958
NEA syndicate’s The Story of Martha Wayne began on May 4, 1953. Writer/artist was Wilson Scruggs, and his wife Ellinor was the model for Martha Wayne, a war widow. Scruggs, born in Washington, D.C., had a background in illustration and had contributed to Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s and Redbook. He was a student of illustrator Harvey Dunn.

[15] May 14, 1960
David Crane was a comic strip about a minister and in early days often featured actual sermons. Ed Dodd (Mark Trail) was the writer and Hamilton, Ontario born James Winslow “Win” Mortimer was the original artist. Creig Flessell (Superman) replaced Mortimer in 1960.

[16] April 14, 1955
Some of the top adventure strips also dabbled in soap opera occasionally. Abby ’n Slats generally featured soap continuity in the dailies and adventure in the Sundays. In Steve Canyon, when he wasn’t busy flying the globe, Steve was involved in numerous long-running romantic serials.

[17] January 21, 1956
Serials about Poteet Canyon, “Steve’s onetime ward and kissin’ cousin” introduced in 1956, were pure soap during her college days and newspaper career. 

[18] December 3, 1966
STILL WAITING. I’m still waiting for a definitive history of soap opera comics. Even a hardcover collection of the best of the various 50s and 60s Mary Worth, Rex Morgan, M.D. and Jane Arden Sundays would be welcomed to my bookshelf.

[19] August 5, 1961
I have only covered the half of it. Not mentioned are Pam by A.W. Brewerton (c.1936), Myra North, Special Nurse (1936), Irv Novick’s Cynthia (1946-53), Big Ben Bolt (1950), The Heart of Juliet Jones (1953), Mary Perkins, On Stage (1957), Adam Ames (1960), Honor Eden (1960), Dr. Kildare (Oct 1962), Ben Casey (1963), and scores of others. England produced numerous soaps. Jane (Dec 1932) and Tiffany Jones (1964) are probably the best known. Both appeared in North American syndication.

[20] January 8, 1977
THE WORST soap may have been the last of the breed, Stan Lee and Frank Springer’s over-the-top The Virtues of Vera Valiant (1976). Probably no other comic strip ever received so much well-deserved abuse in the letters to the editor. A number of color Sundays are available HERE. I was unable to find a good reproduction of the opening strip so reluctantly post this poor quality sample. In three small panels Stan Lee and Frank Springer encapsulate the essence of soap opera.

[21] October 11, 1976
NOTE. Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that Canadian comic supplements were issued on Saturdays instead of Sundays. In the United States supplements were really issued on Sunday.

One Good Apple Proves a Barrel’s Worth, by R.C. Harvey HERE.
Teepee Town to Times Square, HERE.
The Comics are a Serious Business, by Allen Saunders, August 1945 HERE.

[22] December 3, 1966


  1. Not sure if anyone reads comments three years after the fact, but great to find this blog. The "soap" strips have long fascinated me and, aside from some (admittedly often hilarious) blogs that snark on the ones that are still running, like Mary Worth (and it's pretty sad to see the current state of them), there's surprisingly little out there about them, even in this current era of blogging about everything.

    I admit, I grew up in the 80s and 90s when they were already pretty dead, but I always loved serial storytelling (I think All My Children was the first tv show I got into) and comics, so the idea of these glacially paced stories in the paper everyday fascinated me.

    It's frustrating how few collections are out there. Over the years I've picked up some things--a one volume collection of some of the first Ken Ernst Mary Worth comics published in the 1980s (promising more volumes that never came), and the really well done 1950s collections of The Heart of Juliet Jones, as well as some of the volumes of Mary Perkins, On Stage which has been collected in full (but is kinda a soap/adventure comic hybrid). And I've come across a few of the 1960s reprint comic books of various titles like Worth, and Rex Morgan. But that's it.

    Surely there would be a market for a coffee table collection of some of the best, like you mention. Anyway--thanks for the read!

  2. Thanks for your comments - we still read them all!