IT WAS EITHER A GENUINE sign of the end times or proof that hipsters can get into anything, but this summer and fall Aldomania sparked a national "Mary Worth" craze.
In case the above sentence makes no sense to you, "Mary Worth" is a 68-year-old soap-opera comic strip about a nosey, passive-aggressive widow who is now (and always has been) about 68 years old. And Aldomania was a fan eruption over Aldo Kelrast, a Captain Kangaroo look-alike who was stalking the strip's titular heroine in a plot that was at once surprisingly suspenseful and deliciously bizarre.
The Palm Beach Post published 2,100 words on the phenomenon. Fans snapped up Aldomania T-shirts that proclaimed, "I refuse to believe you prefer to be alone" -- one of the stalker's dafter pronouncements. The morning after a dejected Aldo drove off an ill-placed cliff, bottle of cheap hooch in hand (no, really), there were three tribute videos posted to YouTube.com by 9 a.m.
These are not even the heights of the passion "Mary Worth" inspires, nor is "Mary Worth" the only comic that gets this kind of attention. Not long ago, I thought I was pretty much alone in my deep affection for Margo Magee, a sexy, manic and amoral publicist living in the oddly chaste bizarro-Manhattan of "Apartment 3-G," another long-running soap strip.
But that was before I started comicscurmudgeon.com, where I analyze, deconstruct and mock the comics. This site, which I thought would merely entertain my close and indulgent friends, receives about 13,000 visitors and 200 reader comments, every day. I say this not as some sort of sad boast about my "mad blogging skillz" but to point out just how much gleeful energy there is in the comics community.
I'm certainly not alone in examining the funnies online. I can only aspire to the monomania of comics fanatics who focus their critical energy on single strips, from the well known ("Garfield") to the obscure ("The Dinette Set"). I must salute "The Silent Penultimate Panel Watch," a site devoted to tracking a tiny but crucial piece of comics ephemera -- how often strips stretch out a lame setup by putting a wordless reaction shot in the panel before the punch line. And folks, give it up for the live-action "Mary Worth," a mesmerizing late-'90s film (viewable at zerotv.com and YouTube.com) in which gifted actors perform a months' worth of "Mary Worth" strips, complete with the awkward stage gestures and improbable emphases in dialogue that are hallmarks of that venerable strip.
The only place you won't find this kind of enthusiasm is in the newspaper comics pages. Rather than nurturing a section of the paper that has a built-in and long-lived fan base, papers across the country continue to dishearten fans by cramming fewer strips into ever-shrinking spaces. Many comics aficionados have begun to sour on the whole newsprint experience.
My own hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun, inculcated my weird love for the soap-opera strips. But I have abandoned the Sun's comics page for the website of the Houston Chronicle in faraway Texas. The Chron boasts a staggering 103 strips online (though only 66 of them appear in the print edition). The website is a haven for comics fans and a justified source of pride for the paper. "If we like a strip, we keep it, and I hope we continue doing that," says Mike Read, the Chronicle's Web operations and development editor.
The Houston paper is a rarity, however. Most American papers have been steadily cutting back their comics sections for years. It would be nice to blame the decline of comics pages on stodgy editors who are temperamentally unable to deal with the power of Aldomania and the like, but there's a bigger problem here. Print circulation at American newspapers is in free-fall, and editorial space continues to shrink. The shriveling of the comics is another symptom of a disease metastasizing throughout the newspaper business.
But maybe one reason readers are fleeing print is because the papers don't give them enough reason to believe print is anything special. Few comics fans would dispute that the funnies look best on paper, or that reading the comics in newsprint over breakfast is a pleasing ritual. Going back to the childhood of the modern newspaper business -- in the graphically rich Hearst and Pulitzer papers of the early 20th century -- one of the main attractions was always the Sunday morning treat of page after vibrant page of full-color comics. But when was the last time an interesting-looking comics page caught your eye, let alone invited you to a full-spectrum visual feast?