July 19, 2024
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Binghamton alumna brings the ‘Mary Worth’ world to life

Karen Moy pens the stories for long-running soap opera comic strip

Karen Moy '87 has written the Karen Moy '87 has written the
Karen Moy '87 has written the "Mary Worth" comic strip for the past two decades. Image Credit: Mike Jee.

After more than 20 years on the job, Karen Moy ’87 still considers it “a blessing and an honor” to write the longtime daily comic strip “Mary Worth.”

“The stories and characters reflect different societal problems in the country,” Moy says. “Mary doesn’t have all the answers, but she often ends up helping her neighbors, friends and acquaintances because of her experience and compassion.”

The “continuity strip” or “soap opera strip” has been a fixture in newspapers since its debut in 1938. Distributed by North American Syndicate/King Features, the strip showcases life in fictional Santa Royale, Calif., and the Charterstone Condominium Complex. Its most prominent resident is a 60-something, former teacher named Mary Worth. She’s rarely the lead character in the dramatized stories, which are usually based on the people around her.

“She is the lynchpin,” Moy says. “She’s a catalyst for them solving their problems or seeing a different viewpoint. Mary is the kind of neighbor you want: proactive, wants to help you if she can, not too nosy, but interested in other people.”

Stories sometimes focus on “Mary Worth regulars” such as Dr. Jefferson Cory, Mary’s boyfriend, who longs for a more permanent relationship with her; Wilbur Weston, an advice columnist; and Dawn Weston, Wilbur’s college-age daughter (along with Mary, all three surround Moy on the cover of Binghamton University Magazine). At other times, stories focus on new characters who enter Mary’s orbit, such as the recent introduction of former Marine and retired policeman Keith Hillend.

Plot lines often last several months, with multi-panel strips appearing on Sundays that launch the two-panel strips continuing the story Monday through Saturday. Plot topics range from loneliness, senior dating, alcoholism and drug abuse to PTSD, workplace harassment, bullying and romance scams.

“It draws you in,” Moy says. “It’s entertaining while dealing with serious subjects. Both things make you want to keep reading. I’d like to think that ‘Mary Worth’ appeals to all kinds of readers — not just women, not just younger or older readers. There’s something for everyone.”

The start of Moy’s journey

For New York City native Moy, there was something special — “a safe, good feeling” — about Binghamton University during her initial visit in the early 1980s. It led Moy to become an art major, while also taking creative writing classes.

“I benefited from the great teachers, programs and environment that Binghamton has to offer,” she recalls. “The [community] itself struck me as friendly and peaceful. A big plus was that I’m also a fan of The Twilight Zone and Rod Serling, and I got to hang out at the sites where some scenes were [inspired], like the bus stop. And then there’s my fondness for upstate New York, which is where my dad used to take me and my family during childhood vacations.

“I look back and say: ‘Thank God I had that experience.’ I enjoyed being around kind, calm, wholesome people – and I took that goodness into my working life. I try to emulate that relaxed, genuine mindset, which is such a contrast to the hard-driving, stressful pace of New York City.”

After working in medical advertising, Moy got a job as an assistant with Hearst Corporation, which owns King Features. She served as a comic strip ghostwriter when the need arose.

“I said: ‘Yes, I can do it’ and submitted samples of my work,” she says. “Based on those scripts, I was accepted as a temporary ghostwriter for other comic strips. When ‘Mary Worth’ needed a ghostwriter, I volunteered for that, too. I was already a fan of the ‘Mary Worth’ world, so it came easily to me and was a good fit.”

In early 2004, Moy became the credited writer of the comic strip after John Saunders (son of original “Mary Worth” writer Allen Saunders) died.

Collaboration and inspiration

Moy put her own touches on the strip after taking over the storytelling, introducing new characters and neighbors for Mary. For her first 12 years as writer, Moy worked with comic-book artist Joe Giella, a legendary illustrator who was an inker for DC Comics during the “Silver Age of Comic Books” in the late 1950s and 1960s. After retiring in 2016, Giella was replaced by June Brigman, who spent 16 years illustrating the “Brenda Starr, Reporter” comic strip (Brigman drew the “Mary Worth”-style illustration on the cover of Binghamton University Magazine).

“June has been doing this for so long that I have great faith in her,” Moy says. “She has so much experience. Drawing ‘Brenda Starr,’ I knew she was familiar with a continuity strip, which requires more demands and details than a gag-a-day strip.”

Moy and Brigman communicate mostly through email and social media, as they are based in New York City and Atlanta, respectively, but they constantly discuss storylines and designs.

Brigman even suggested a storyline based on something that happened to a friend. In the comic, retired policeman Keith Hillend moves into Mary’s building when a college-age woman shows up and says she is his daughter based on a brief relationship in the past. Keith then reconnects with the mother after 20 years.

“Working with Karen is an easy collaboration,” Brigman says. “She’s always open to my ideas and knows the ‘Mary Worth’ universe inside and out. We’re both old pros who love comics.”

For Moy, the most challenging part of writing “Mary Worth” is the deadlines: She often writes several months ahead to give Brigman and the production team enough time to produce the strips. But the writing process is always enjoyable, Moy says.

“It’s almost like writing a play: ‘Then he walks into the room,’” she says. “I write all of the details, not just the dialogue — it’s the settings, the feelings, the facial expressions. You visualize it before it goes on paper.”

Moy thinks about the comic strip in everyday life, in her conversations and in the places she goes. Music is also a big inspiration for Moy, and she has incorporated song lyrics into character dialogue, such as “I miss you already. I miss you always” from Pearl Jam’s “Smile” (Moy admits that many older and younger readers probably missed the reference). Semisonic’s 1998 hit record “Closing Time” also inspired a strip — two characters, Brandy and Tommy, meet while working at a grocery store, spend time together at late-night meals and eventually start dating.

“When I heard the song, it brought out these feelings,” Moy says. “I could imagine stories developing from that song. Music and art are related because they work different parts of your brain, but they still come from the heart.”

Moy believes there will always be interest in comic strips that “bring good art and good writing” to the masses. She hopes to keep writing “Mary Worth” stories as long as they are read by fans new or old.

“I appreciate that I can affect someone in a way that can hopefully uplift them, enlighten them, make them laugh or cry, or think about something in a different or better way,” she says.

“I think that’s something Mary Worth would say!”

Posted in: Arts & Culture, Harpur