Not To Start Anything But Yes, _Mary Worth_ Is Being Weird And Creepy Lately

I’m not looking to start any trouble. But, for those who’ve missed it, the current storyline in Mary Worth is in its eleventh week. It’s been entirely about Mary Worth visiting New York City, where she’s been taking little Olive out and about to Broadway plays and museums and shopping and everything. What’s Mary Worth’s relationship to Olive? Nothing really. In a story a while back Olive had a tumor, and she was scared of the surgeon. Mary Worth got Olive’s parents to listen to Olive’s fears, and it turned out the surgeon was on The Drugs so she was right and that’s it.

So this looked like a nice, unusual follow-up story of the kid and her parents after they went back home. Except you know how every Mary Worth story is about people who have an exceedingly simple problem that they can’t figure out until, ideally, some people finally obey Mary’s orders to get married? Writer Karen Moy forgot to include a problem this story. It’s just been Mary poking around taking the kid on a tour of Manhattan, where the kid lives, and talking in ways that straddle the line between “kind of creepy” and “might be coded messages to foreign agents”. It doesn’t reach Apartment 3-G-esque levels of inhumanity — nothing could — but it’s still dazzling.

Little girl Olive and not-little-girl Mary Worth compliment each other's choices in Macy's watches a *lot*.
Karen Moy and Joe Giella’s Mary Worth for the 17th of January, 2016. Yes, it’s all watch-shopping action, but at least everybody involved looks painfully awkward and like they don’t know how to get out of this. Also, apparently Mary Worth is lefthanded? I never knew that.

The past week they’ve spent shopping for each other, with Sunday’s installment a fair representation of what’s going on, although the body language just keeps getting funnier. Special high points: Mary’s hunched-over, guilty, ready-to-flee look in the first panel of the second row; her far-off “and this is why I gave humanity the invention of warp drive” look in the first panel of the third row; and the shopkeeper’s “wait, where is every object in relation to every other object?” gaze in the final panel.

Anyway, I know what you’re really here for, and that’s a bit of gentle pleading to read my mathematics blog and its comic strip discussion there. It features electronic brain action, if you like that. (Who doesn’t?)

Is There Life After Apartment 3-G?

My love asked if I planned to keep doing comic strip reviews now that I don’t have Apartment 3-G to fill a weekly essay. And if I’m not, then what am I going to do instead? They’re good questions. I don’t know just what I’ll do yet, although I don’t figure on regularly snarking on another comic strip.

There’s plenty to snark about. And there are many fine, quality comic-strip snark blogs, and Usenet group rec.arts.comics.strips. RACS is a bit more likely to talk up the good side of comics, and the business and other sides, I should say. It isn’t all the making fun of any one comic strip, not since the glorious fiasco of Lynn Johnston’s For Better Or For Worse‘s end, an event known throughout all comic-strip commentary communities as the Foobocalypse. We still look back on it with glee. (“Here’s the strip where Johnston warns Elizabeth that if she doesn’t give up her life and marry Granthony soon then she’s going to start killing supporting characters, starting with Grandpa Jim.”) And a bit of snark is a healthy thing. It deflates self-importance, it melts pomposity, and it binds disappointed audiences in giddy consolation.

I came by my Apartment 3-G coverage honestly, when I was entertained by how baffled the comic strip left me. There hadn’t been anything so engagingly dadaist since the last years of Dick Locher’s run on Dick Tracy, when very few plot points were endlessly repeated and abstractly illustrated. There isn’t anything like it now. Even the stodgiest story strip (Mary Worth, by my lights) or the slowest-moving strip (Rex Morgan, in which June Morgan’s 27 months of pregnancy have just ended with her delivering a way overdue baby elephant) are relentlessly understandable. Apartment 3-G I was trying, honestly, to work out what was happening and why it was happening. And I meant to try understanding what was going on both on-panel and behind-the-senes. The jokes were flavoring used to make that more palatable.

So while I’m certainly going to toss jokes off in the direction of misfired comic strips (mostly in RACS, I figure), I don’t expect to make that a regular feature here. There’s nothing going on in Judge Parker that needs earnest explanation. Compu-Toon maybe. But I fear there’s something uncharitable in searching out a target for evisceration. If I’m going to put too many column-inches into ridiculing something, it should be with the hope that something useful will come of it. It should be for a better understanding of the bad, or to share with an audience that wondrous sense of strange outsider-art that true ineptness has. Sneering is an individual right, as quirky and as personal as the set of things we delete from our search histories. Nobody needs to be told to sneer at things. We need it to be at least a bit celebratory.

That said, yes, Mary Worth is getting a little creepy lately, and the dialogue reads ever-more like spies passing messages. (Mary Worth: “We can be more aware of how we affect each other and the environment.” Eight-year-old Olivia: “I like to think that change for the better … and not just the worse … can happen very quickly, too!”)

Nothing Is Happening In Apartment 3-G Update: What Is Happening To Apartment 3-G?

OK, it’s been another week of nothing going on in Frank Bolle and Margaret Sholock’s Apartment 3-G. Let me recap for the sake of people searching desperately for any hint of what’s going on. After finding his plan of “wandering around Manhattan occasionally running in to Margo but not telling her who he is or why he’s there” somehow failed to make a connection with Margo, Eric Mills has gone to Apartment 3-G. There, Margo’s roommate Tommie was telling Lu Ann she had been set free. I assume this means that Tommie intends to go out in the fields and frolic. Within days Tommie will be dead, having been attacked and eaten by butterflies.

Eric explains that he is Eric and is not dead, raising protests of “but you died five years ago”. Lu Ann takes this news better than I imagined, because her head does not explode in a shower of electrical sparks at this paradox while she begs, “Norman, co-ordinate”. She instead agrees that Eric couldn’t have expected Margo to know her because she’s been wandering in a delusional funk through Manhattan for 28 weeks now. In the Sunday recap all this is explained again, although instead of taking place in Apartment 3-G the action takes place again on the streets of the backdrop from your high school’s junior year production of Our Town. Except for the final panel because of course.

Eric Mills explains he is not dead, while Tommie and Lu Ann teleport around one another. He's interested in helping Margo, but not so interested as to actually say anything meaningful to her.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 30th of August, 2015. Seriously, what are the backgrounds even supposed to mean there?

Now. As soap opera strips go this is a fair bit of development. Characters find out stuff they didn’t know at the start of the week. It’s no Mary Worth, where Professor Ian, in his guise as Pomposity Lad, managed to in three weeks turn sucking up to his boss into a marriage-threatening crisis. But it’s something.

But the most eye-catching thing is that the artwork has gotten appreciably worse. It’s been bad for a while now, yes. But it’s fallen in another step the past week. Backgrounds have been randomly assigned collections of objects all year, but now they’ve started vanishing altogether. And the characters have begun looking much more sketchy and unfocused. It almost looks like we might be seeing Bolle’s pencil art, without inking and cleanup. But the static poses and arbitrary arrangement of characters, not to mention the random selections of backgrounds when they’re remembered, mean this doesn’t convey energy or vitality, the virtues of unlinked and un-cleaned artwork. It looks more worrying. Is Frank Bolle all right? And past that, is King Features interested in running an Apartment 3-G that’s at least a competent comic strip? I have no answers.

What can I say without a sense of Batiukian despair? Well, on my mathematics blog, there’s comic strips talked about there in which some things happen. In my favorite, someone gets pies thrown at him repeatedly. That is a thing that happens and that is illustrated by Tom Toles.

Mary Worth Taken Over By Brain-Eating Virus

I don’t want to bore you too much with the story comics, because they are story comics, engaged in some race to produce the most boring storyline imaginable, and last year’s sequence in Apartment 3-G — where Tommie and Some Other Woman spent literally and without exaggeration more than thirty days engaged in a series of two-shots talking about how they ought to talk about something — is a ferociously high bar of boredom to meet. But, well, just look at this Sunday’s Mary Worth:

Of a conflict between mother and daughter about the mother getting married, Mary Worth says, 'These things tend to have a way of working themselves out, anyway', in violation of everything the comic strip has ever stood for, for crying out loud.
Karen Moy and Joe Giella’s Mary Worth for the 8th of February, 2015, and — in the bottom row, first panel — Mary Worth completely losing track of her mission statement.

Now, Hanna and Sean are getting married because they’re two unmarried people who got on-panel in Mary Worth, so they have to. Hanna’s daughter Amy is angry about the wedding because (a) she doesn’t know Sean at all, and (b) her mother has started refusing when Amy’s brought her child over to Hanna’s place, unannounced, for baby-sitting whenever Amy discovers she has an unexpected date for the night. Hanna concluded that it’s best if she just married Sean and let Amy find out about it afterwards, and Mary Worth agreed on-panel that this was a good idea. And then, today, well.

“These things tend to have a way of working themselves out, anyway”?

This is already a boring strip, but if Mary Worth is going to take up the attitude that all troubles will someday pass, and that to exert oneself unduly is counter-productive, then the comic strip could achieve a vast expanding swath of nothingness that destroys all possible content, so I guess the story comics aren’t in for a good decade after all.

I could go on, at disturbing length, complaining about all the things that have gone wrong in this storyline to have reached this point, but the main thing is the script reached the point of Mary Worth declaring “these things tend to have a way of working themselves out”. Yes, there was one time Captain Kirk let the planet of the week keep their omnipotent computer-god overlord too, but that was the time McCoy had contracted a fatal case of We Need Him To Go Off And Get Temporarily Married syndrome, so Kirk’s mind was on other stuff. Mary Worth hasn’t got any excuse.


I want to talk a little about playing pinball lately, and I know not everybody is even aware you can play pinball lately, what with it not being 1978 anymore, so let me bring folks up to speed. In the old days pinball machines were relatively sedate affairs: the backglass and playfield art would be a picture of, oh, whatever, wizards in space, or boaters being tormented by Neptune, or the background characters of Mary Worth singing. On the table there’d be a bunch of bumpers, which are the mushroom-shaped things you’d think would be called kickers that kick the ball around; and a pair of kickers, which are the triangular things above the flippers that you’d think would be called bumpers; and the flippers, which are just flippers; and a bunch of drop targets, which are the things you aim the ball at and that fall down when you hit them. And the rule set was pretty straightforward: the targets would be themed to either sets of playing cards or else pool balls, and you would try to knock them all down, and if you managed that, they popped back up and you try to knock them down again.

Then someone went and invented computers, and put them in pinball machines, and they also added ramps just too late for the people who made the Evel Kneivel pinball machine, and it all got complicated because the rules could change, giving you, like, eight seconds to shoot the world’s steepest, most inaccessible ramp ever, in exchange for 2.25 billion points. With scores that enormous being thrown around, of course, they had to get corporate sponsorship for their themes and so wizards playing 9-ball in a baseball park wouldn’t cut it anymore. These days a pinball machine is themed to a popular movie/TV show franchise, a comic book superhero, or a band, which is why pinball magnate Gary Stern has been polishing his Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park reboot script for years.

I should say that while pinball scores got kind of out of control back there in the 90s there’ve been efforts to rein them back in, so that a normal good score is only like tens of millions anymore. Some machines have been pretty serious about reducing the score, though: the current world record for The Wizard of Oz pinball is 4, although a guy playing in the Kentucky state championships this year has a new strategy he hypothesizes will let him score 6 or, if the table is generous about giving extra balls, maybe even 7. He’s daft.

Anyway, a couple weeks ago, I had a really good game of The Walking Dead, a pinball machine of such fantastic complexity that nobody knows what all the rules are. The leading theory is that there’s actually just a seed program inside that develops new rules on the fly, so that every time someone works out “OK, if I shoot the ramp three times something good happens”, it’ll suddenly change to, say, “you have to shoot the ramp four times after hitting the Creepy Zombie in the middle twice and identify which presidents George Clinton was vice-president for and maybe slip an extra quarter in the coin slot if you know what’s good for you”. But that one time, good grief, but I was hitting everything and starting modes that nobody even knew existed. I put together a score that was about what I would expect if you added together all my Walking Dead games for an eight-month period and put it together into one game.

So. The next league night, when we play for actual competitive points, I knew I was going to flop badly and yes, it happened. On the table Tales of the Arabian Nights I put up a score of 289,180, and trust me, your pinball friends are torn between laughing and thinking with horror of what if it happened to them. Arabian Nights dates to when scores were just starting to get out of hand, so it could have a theme as uncommercial as legends that have enchanted people for centuries, but still. People who walk past it without stopping to play routinely score 600,000, and people who put coins into other machines at the pinball venue — including the change machine or the machine selling gumballs — will often get a million points from Arabian Nights.

I didn’t just flop; I flopped epochally, like if the “Agony of Defeat” guy didn’t just stumble, but also burst into flames and smashed into Evel Kneivel’s rocket-sled on its way to draining. I honestly feel accomplished, and all set for the state championships this weekend.

The Foods Of Mary Worth

Mary Worth hopes her ``chicken salad'' appetizers will be a hit.
Mary Worth hopes her “chicken salad” appetizers will be a hit. Meanwhile, she scrunches up, defensively, the way you might if someone were berating you for messing up the Parker account.

I’m sorry to bother folks with the story comic strips, because they don’t know how to tell stories and they’re never really comic on purpose, but Monday’s Mary Worth got to me in that way these things sometimes do.

So: why does Mary Worth’s “chicken salad” have bones? Does she just arbitrarily assign names to randomly selected objects smothered in beige? “Oh, I hope you all enjoy my Baked Macaroni Whimsies! They’re made of pebbles and children’s scissors! And I’m not making promises but for next weekend’s potluck I’m thinking my Artichoke-Guacamole Dip since I’ve got to do something with this crop of chipped-up Star Trek: Nemesis DVDs I grabbed at the Blockbuster going-out-of-business sale!”

What My Humor Blog Did In February 2014

I do make a serious effort to track what’s being read and what isn’t around these parts, and for February 2014, it turns out the number of readers of pages around here went from 337 in January to 337 in February. At least they were different readers. Actually, the number of readers increased from 153 to 170, implying a page-per-reader count drop from 2.20 to 1.98, so I’m amusing more people, but they’re all a little less happy with what they see.

The most popular articles the last thirty days were:

  1. Mathematics Comics, Over That Way, pointing over to my mildly popular mathematics blog.
  2. Statistics Saturday: Hi, Dad, which gets you to a better understanding of my father.
  3. Unintentional Laughs, where I just make fun of Mary Worth and Flash Gordon like they needed me to do that.
  4. Another View of the United States, offering the fascinating statistical matchup between states of the United States and nations of the world.
  5. Newton’s Prank, about this time he made a fake comet, and which I realize has a thematic link to Also, Heidegger Was A Shingle Weaver, and the unexpected sides of historically important people.

As usual the countries sending me the most readers were the United States (261) and Canada (28), with the United Kingdom (8) and Singapore (6) coming up next. The countries that could just barely tolerate me were Denmark, Japan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Spain, and Sweden. None of them were on last month’s roster, just as last month none of the countries were from December 2013’s roster of single-viewer nations, so my plan to amuse one person in every country in the world is continuing to exist.

Mathematics Comics and Robots With Knives

I know this is sudden, but I had a bunch of other mathematics-themed comics over on the mathematics blog, where you can see again about how cartoonists keep finding something funny, almost, about an infinity of monkeys for some reason. Go figure.

Flash Gordon easily defeats a KnifeBot.

Meanwhile, in 1959, for all those of you who were curious how Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon was making out against the StabBot, I’m happy to report that Flash swiftly defeated the Knifeketeer’s robot minion, and did so with style and grace, by which I mean he passed up the clearly-marked target of the robot’s groin.

I have no important updates on how Mary Worth is doing with her casserole, although Iris and Tommy do continue to look terrified.

Do alien armies really spend all their time in close-up knife-brawls with robots? We could make a fortune selling these people laser pistols.

Unintentional Laughs

This isn’t going to be a particularly sophisticated little installment. What sets it off is that I was reading the story comics. I didn’t think much of the story strips when I was a kid; they were just this inky-black column on the left side of the Star-Ledger‘s comics page where there were never any jokes and nothing seemed to happen. There’s still nothing happening, albeit at a much slower pace than back then, but I’ve come to understand the charms of their storytelling structures.

Mary Worth uses a casserole to squeeze her way into Iris's apartment.

That’s not to say I won’t giggle where it’s really not meant as a result of the strip not doing what it wants. For the first, here’s Wednesday’s Mary Worth, by Karen Moy and Joe Giella, which is the usual setup in which Mary is using a tiny casserole to shove her way into someone else’s life. It’s just the looks on Mary’s and then Iris’s faces that makes me laugh. The two of them have plastered these wide-eyed stares and are looking any any direction except at the person they’re talking to. And then you notice in the second panel either Mary’s falling over backwards or else she’s thrusting her hips at Iris, and either way, well.

Flash Gordon is introduced to a knife-wielding (welding?) robot.

The other is from back in the day when they knew how to introduce and run through a story in a reasonable time. From April 1959 it’s Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, and in this story Flash has been impressed into an alien army’s suicide squadron and is being put up against a training robot which … well, perhaps there’s a time when I would have taken “this knife-fighting robot — it plays for keeps!” in utter seriousness, but that time was before Futurama introduced us to robot criminal Roberto.

I laughed so at the reveal of the knife-fighting robot that my love called downstairs to ask if I was all right. I swear.

(Again I apologize for the comics being small on the page. If you click on them you should see a wider version, and appreciate the strips in more of their glory.)