This year marks the 80th anniversary of the debut of Mary Worth, a popular comic strip that dispenses with many of the conventional tropes of the art form. There are no talking animals, no superheroes, and not many jokes. Instead, the titular widow’s power is an ability to analyze mundane relationship issues and dole out advice. Check out some facts about its history, an unlikely crossover with a spandex-clad hero, and the gruesome fate of Mary’s stalker.
1. MARY’S TRUE ORIGINS WERE ONCE SHROUDED IN MYSTERY.
When Mary Worth was introduced by writer Allen Saunders in 1938, it took the place of a strip titled Apple Mary by writer Martha Orr. Apple Mary was a laugh-a-minute offering about an applecart proprietor struggling to survive during the Great Depression while caring for her handicapped grandson. According to distributor King Features, Mary Worth is not a continuation of Apple Mary—it just happened to be the replacement for Orr’s strip when she left comics. But Saunders thought differently. In his autobiography, he wrote that he deliberately changed Apple Mary from an economically-challenged food vendor to a more polished suburbanite who helped people with relationship problems.
The smoking gun—or cart—was excavated by Comics Journal contributor R.C. Harvey, who reported on a series of strips published in 1935 that explain Apple Mary’s full name is Mary Worth and that she was an heiress who lost her fortune to unscrupulous lawyers.
2. THE STRIP WAS THE FIRST TO DISCUSS TEEN PREGNANCY.
Never one to shy from hot-button issues of the day, Mary Worth made comics history in 1976 when Mary was called upon to counsel a teenager faced with having an illegitimate child. Saunders, who was still writing the strip, told The New York Times that “we may shock some people,” but he felt the problem was too great to ignore. Some readers may have been taken aback, as Mary did not suggest the fictional teen, Karen Cooper, marry her boyfriend. Instead, the single mother-to-be went on to college.
3. SHE GOT A FACELIFT.
With her silver, bunned hair and mature features, Mary Worth has perennially been a woman in her 60s Though not demonstrably vain, some of her lines and crow’s feet were erased in 1991 by artist Joe Giella. John Saunders, who took over writing duties from father Allen in 1979, said he was surprised by Giella’s rendition of the character, which seemed to take decades off her face. The two compromised and decided to slowly advance Mary’s looks to reflect her age. Asked if she might be undergoing any further cosmetic enhancements, Saunders told press that she’s “flat on all four sides.” In 2006, Giella was finally permitted to enhance Worth’s sex appeal by adding curves and getting rid of her matronly bun.
4. SHE GOT INTO A FEUD WITH LIL’ ABNER.
In order to promote their respective strips, Lil’ Abner creator Al Capp and Saunders orchestrated a “feud” between the two creations in 1957, with Capp’s characters referring to a busybody lookalike as “Mary Worm” and Saunders injecting insults toward Capp in the panels of his own strip. (“Hal Rapp” was a “fatheaded egomaniac.”) It was in good fun, but newspaper editors didn’t get the joke. The Buffalo Evening News threatened to cancel Mary Worth unless it “stopped maligning” Capp’s character.
5. SHE GOT ONE LIVE-ACTION ADAPTATION ... AND IT WAS WEIRD.
Unlike many of its comics contemporaries, Mary Worth has never been hotly pursued as a brand license for animation or other adaptations. The lone exception came in 1988, when some enterprising amateur filmmakers shot a very literal sequence taken from the strip that preserved the original panel’s “camera” angles and stilted dialogue.
6. SHE HAD A STALKER.
Mary Worth fans used to the character’s glacially-paced interventions were taken aback to see the character in a far more dramatic scenario in 2006. That was the year current writer Karen Moy introduced Aldo Kelrast, a swinging senior who had eyes for Mary. Aldo’s wife had died under mysterious circumstances, prompting Mary and her friends to suspect he was a murderer. Complicating matters was Mary’s love for Doctor Jeff Cory, a globe-hopping physician who captured her heart. The love triangle was said to have spiced up the strip for the first time in decades, with readers particularly intrigued by the fact that Aldo bore a strong resemblance to Captain Kangaroo. Kelrast—an anagram of stalker—later got drunk and drove off a cliff.
7. MARY ONCE CROSSED OVER WITH THE PHANTOM.
Though Mary is nosy by nature, her adventures are usually relegated to her circle of friends and acquaintances. Only once did she get a taste of the danger and excitement faced by her comics page cohorts. In 2015, writer Karen Moy and The Phantom author Tony DePaul got together to present a fleeting glimpse of Mary in the costumed hero’s world. While in New York, Mary shares a cab with Heloise, the Phantom’s daughter. And—well, that’s it, really. But to know Mary Worth exists in the same continuity as a man in purple spandex should be enough.
8. SHE WAS VOTED OFF ONE LOUISIANA NEWSPAPER.
In 2007, Louisiana's Shreveport Times decided to shuffle their selection of strips and solicited readers on which title they’d like to see removed permanently. Among the options—Sally Forth, Mary Worth, Beetle Bailey, Marvin, Hagar the Horrible, For Better or Worse, and Curtis—Mary Worth was nominated for the axe.