As the World Turns

The next time one of your parents or in-laws gives you grief about your little funnybooks, I want you to pause for a moment and think about Stefano DiMera.

If you aren’t familiar with Stefano (what are they teaching kids in schools these days?) he has been one of the richest, most powerful men in Salem since he arrived on our shores in 1982, although his wealth and power have been attained in some pretty shady, unspoken ways. In fact, as far as I can tell, he has no direct source of income; his chief occupation seems to be developing grudges against people and taking them out on entire families for generations while occasionally chuckling to himself cryptically. Sometimes, he tries to seduce other men’s wives; other times, he gets his kids cosmetic surgery so they look just like his enemies. He has been known to visit women in the night through secret passages in their armoires while wearing a mask until those women become possessed and throw him off the balcony. Stefano has a lot of range. Also, he has faked his death eleven separate times in the last 25 years.

Eleven. Suck it, Jean Grey! Better luck next year!

If everything you just read sounds like the thing that wino in the army helmet shouted at you at the bus stop the other day, don’t worry: I have not stopped taking my medication. (I need it now more than ever!) No, all of these have been bullet point vignettes from the life of Stefano DiMera as he has lived it on Days of Our Lives, my mother’s favorite soap opera for as long as I have been taking in air. My mother turned on her television, saw all of the things you just read, and then kept watching every day without a break or a rerun. Then thirty years went by.

I know there are times when your coworkers or partners or The Big Bang Theory make you feel like an obsessive loser, but before you let them do fatal damage to your sense of self you need to take a gander at this shit right here. Wolverine would fondle a stranger at a rest stop for a Wikipedia entry that detailed. I tried to use it for material today… but it just keeps going. Look at it. It’s like the Great Wall, but with evil twins.

My mom has seen Stefano die all eleven times. The other day, I thought, “If every episode of Days of Our Lives were printed instead of broadcast, what would my mom’s basement look like right now? What would the longbox situation be down there?”

I thank God in His Cotton Candy Cloud for Stefano DiMera, as evil as he is, because when Mom reached her first “I can’t believe you keep spending all your money on this stuff” point with me all those years ago, I was able to say, “I’m no different than you. Comics are just soap operas on paper.” (Of course, I was reading a lot of X-Men at the time.) This was a good stopgap measure until my next arena of defense: “I’m eleven. What should I be spending my allowance on, my mutual fund?”

I’m thinking about all this for a couple of reasons. First of all, I have an old friend who’s a stay-at-home mom now who keeps falling back into the soap opera trap like one of you World of Warcraft people, revisiting it compulsively every couple of years since college. Like some kind of AA sponsor, I keep having to steer her away from this creativity-free time hole. “Don’t fall for it!” I have to say. “Marlena has been married three times already! Remember the dark elves!”

The other reason this has been on my mind is that, last week, Guiding Light went off the air after 72 (seventy-two!) years. Think about that. This is a show that came on the air during the Roosevelt administration and went off the air a couple days ago. Your great-grandma thought about listening to this show while Hitler was brainstorming, “Hey, what do you guys think about Poland?” and you could have watched it Tuesday.

Make fun of the wedding gunfights and evil twins all you want; what ideas have you had with that kind of staying power?

Me neither. Don’t feel bad.

So, looking at Guiding Light, we see a serial story that has been around since the late thirties and was prone to cliffhangers, dead characters who don’t stay dead, and generalized melodrama before being canceled because the market for its kind of storytelling largely no longer exists. That all seems somewhat familiar, doesn’t it?

There are important differences between a soap with actors and a comic, of course. Guiding Light was born in an era before Man discovered the reboot, and where there are living actors there is aging. Over time, the focus of the show would shift to the main characters’ kids, or to a new family that just moved into town. The show had a star in 1938, but within a few years that guy wasn’t even on the show anymore, and within a few more years nobody that character knew was on the show. Listeners to the original program wouldn’t even recognize it by 1975, and still it kept going. It was like ER, times five.

Back when my prayers were being answered and Peter Parker was being magically unmarried, there was a certain contingent of the fanbase lobbying for Spider-Man to become Guiding Light. “I grew up, got married and had kids,” said people who exist only to frustrate me. “Why can’t Peter Parker grow up, get married and have kids?” Oh my God, I would shout at the monitor with handfuls of hair, because then it would be ****ing Guiding Light. When does it stop? He has kids, and then the kids grow up? He gets to be fifty or so? He was in high school in 1963; do you want to see Grampa Petey? Say, how are those sales of Spider-Girl holding up? What’s that? It’s been canceled for the fourth time because no one anywhere wants to read that story? I see.

I know that there are fans of books with “legacy” characters. I recognize their place in the marketplace, and I recognize the very, very limited story potential. Every book can be Gasoline Alley, certainly. The thing is, though, you can tell those tales, but you don’t have to. The actors aren’t getting any older. That is one of the things that’s great about books and animation: the characters need only age as much as you want them to. Never mind being able to climb walls and lift cars; the thing I envy about Spidey is his ability to stay 25.

Soap operas are completely schizophrenic about aging, by the way. They keep giving the characters babies, instantly getting bored with the babies, and inflicting them with Rapid Aging Syndrome. Someone will have a kid, go away for a month, and suddenly the kid is twelve years old. You keep finding yourself watching scenes with 25 year old actors who are pretending to be teens and the 31 year old actors who fathered them. (To experience this feeling on paper, see Alan Heinberg’s Young Avengers. Wait, Cassie Lang is how old? So Jessica Jones is how old?? Stick to terrible hospital drama, Heinberg!)

The main thing comics can learn from Guiding Light isn’t how to depressingly age characters and change premises; it’s how to survive for 72 (seventy-two!) years. Guiding Light started as a radio show and then, when a new medium came to prominence, it jumped to TV. For three or four years, it was a radio and TV show at the same time, with everyone involved doing double duty. You would be forgiven for thinking of those as “the ‘motion comics’ years.”

Yes, Jim Mroczkowski is aware there was a Guiding Light/New Avengers crossover; he just has nothing interesting to say about that. He is, however, taking suggestions via Twitter.


  1. If you think about it, those stay at home moms who watch all those soap operas are even bigger dorks than us! We read the exploits of our favorite characters every month or so, but they watch their favorite characters everyday, and probably are experts at the continuity as well! I, for one, am no longer ashamed to be an expert on Deadpool or Multiple Man history after reading this article, since I have nothing on soap opera fans.

  2. Comics are just soap operas with super powers. Have been for a long time. They’re my "stories".

     They even had Dierdre Hall’s character on Days of our Lives possessed by the devil at one point. One summer they killed off a dozen or so characters and they all woke up on an island. Crazy stuff.

  3. I see the comparison, though this does more to bring out what frustrates me about Marvel & DC comics than to validate them in comparison to a more popular form of entertainment.  I think the positive thing they have in common is that, overall, they find workable ways to use the parameters of the medium, and they also recognize that their viewers/readers have (or SHOULD have) the brainpower to play along with the conventions and still find an enjoyable story.  I should say I’ve never heard a soap fan say "Recasting that character took me out of the story!" or "Once Nicholas came home from boarding school as a 30 year old, I had to quit watching because it was so unbelievable."  Whereas I’ve read multipage rants about Kitty Pryde being recast in the third X-Men movie.  Even though she didn’t have any lines in the first two. 

  4. I think it was Jim Shooter, in the days he was running Marvel, who insisted that the writers watch soap operas. Because melodrama aside, the soaps are very good and re-introducing characters over and over again for new viewers, while maintaining an juggling plotlines for those addicted.

    I’ve always felt that was the direct link between the classic 80’s Claremont X-men and Days of Our Lives.

     (True Story: When I was in the 8th grade, my parents took my sister on a weeklong school trip, and I stayed at my friend Matt’s house. Every day after school, Matt would watch Days of our Lives. He had begun watching it because his mom watched it. After one week, I was hooked. I would creep up to my parents room and watch Days on their small b/w TV, until I was discovered and had to ‘fess up that I was addicted to a soap opera.)

     I watched Days and read Uncanny X-men, and I quickly saw the connection. The way the A-plot would wrap just as the B-plot ramped up to take the spotlight, while the first signs of the C-plot began to wriggle from its cocoon. Both series did that very well. And you could jump onto either immediately. It took me ONE week of watching Days and I had to know what happened next. And in those days, you could pick up the first issue of Days of Future Past, and you’d HAVE to know what happened next.




  5. I am CONSTANTLY thinking about Stefano DiMera.  I ask myself: "Who should I kidnap, brainwash, and impregnate today?"

    My wife was a HUGE Days of Our Lives fan and during college I often got roped into watching it.  Stefano’s mustache-twirling brand of evil was the only thing keeping me interested (that and John Black’s awful, awful physical acting).

    I like the parallel you are drawing between comics and soaps.  You could even argue that they are similarly priced.  If you buy 9 comics a week that is (at $4 a pop) $36.  If you watch 5 episodes of a soap (at one hour each) and the minimum wage  is $7.25, then watching that show costs you (in foregone income) $36.25.  Throw that one at your mom (or dad) the next time she verbally assaults you for spending $30 bucks at the comic shop (as moms and dads are known to do). 

  6. @stuclach  I dropped econ so pardon me but if you’re figuring it that way, don’t you also have to factor foregone income into how long it takes you to read the comic?  Comic = money + time, TV only = time.  And I suppose amortizing the cost of your TV, a/v equipment, and cable/satellite service per hour or television and then. . .

    Yeah, see, I dropped econ.  I still think it’s hard to argue that comics are less expensive, and the marginal cost of each comic is certainly higher.

  7. Its all about drama. If you create good drama peopel will flock to your product. Serialization changest hings only in that it often leads to an ongoing series where people become attached to characters, concepts and ideas. They demand to see those keep going into the great forever. Unlike the TV soaps, comic book characters can basically live forver and ever… and ever… yet we still love that they tell us the same stories over and over. At least, I do.

  8. I remember teasing my exGF about her soaps until I realized that my comics were pretty much soaps but with more head bashing. Then I broke up with her because she slept with my twin brother who recently had my half sister’s baby after coming back from the dead.

  9. Nice article. 

    I’ve often told my wife that comics are "soap operas for boys".  And I’m okay with that.  Really.  

  10. @ohcaroline – Personally, I read my comics outside of typical work hours, but if you want the value of foregone time that can be calculated.  How long would it take to read 9 comics? An hour? Two?  That adds either $7.25 or $14.50 to the cost of the books.  We could also add in the things you mentioned (cost of cable/sat, etc), but that probably isn’t worth the time.  I would ask how many people watch just one soap, but won’t do that either.

    I didn’t mean to imply that comics are necessarily cheaper, I just want to show that soaps aren’t as "free" as many people make them out to be.  However, I would certainly argue that watching a single soap (Days of Our Lives, for example) is considerably more expensive than reading one comic book (Hulk, for example).  

    Assuming Hulk comes out once a month and that Days is on 5 days a week.  These are your monthly costs:
    Direct cost of Hulk: $4
    Time cost (being generous and assuming you pour over your hulk issue like never before): One hour (@$7.25)

    Direct cost of Days of Our Lives: $0 (if you ignore the types of costs you mention in your post)
    Time cost [5 hours a week for roughly 4 weeks = 20 hours (@$7.25 per hour)] : $145

    Total for Hulk: $11.25 
    Total for Days: $145.

    Based on those assumption (including the ridiculous 1 hour reading each book), you could buy roughly 13 comics a month and spend as much in direct and indirect cost as you do on Soaps.

    If I had the time I would write a post on this. 

  11. Never thought about comics as soap operas, and it makes peferct sense, but I won’t be using them as a reason to get into comics to friends. 

    Looked at Stefano’s history, waaay too long for me to read but I saw this gem

     "Marlena shot him, and he fell from a catwalk as the building caught fire in 1985 (he also had a brain tumor)"

    That sounds like pure awesome. 

  12. Daccampo is completely right about how the various plots ebb and flow in both of these storytelling formats.

    I remember reading Superman comics in the 90s when a new issue of something Superman related was coming out each week and it always connected to what happened the previous week.  That was around the same time that my mom was deep into GENERAL HOSPITAL and I’d watch the occasional episode with her after school.  We discovered this connection between comics and soap operas ourselves during this time period.  It was actually a nice little bonding time.  Thanks for bringing those memories back, Jim!

  13. @stuclach  So your calculation assumes that only unemployed/underemployed people watch soap operas?  All right, then.

  14. Good article. I’m a little shocked at some of the people claiming this is a revelation, though. People have been calling X-Men and Teen Titans Soap Opera for as long as I’ve been reading comics! Indeed, my mother used to watch the 90s X-Men cartoon with me for just such a reason – she got invested in the characters like on a soap. (She would, however, stop watching soaps some years later after getting fed up with the random aging and replacements.) One thing Jim, it is important to mention that the shift from Radio to TV actually changed the demographics for the show. The original radio program had a decent male following that almost completely disappeared by 1960. Recently that again changed with the "invention" of stay-at-home-dads and more varied work schedules as well as tivo and the like.

  15. I used to watch this, HAHA. How many here watch As The World Turns, fess-up.

  16. I got sick one week with pneumonia and was forced to watch my mom’s favorite show, General Hospital. 

    I got hooked. 

  17. @ohcaroline – No, I wasn’t imply that the people watching the soaps are unemployed or underemployed.   Why do you say that?  I mention typical work hours because it is my understanding that these shows come on during those times.  People could obviously use a DVR to watch them.  My wife has in the past and she certainly isn’t unemployed (though I do tell her all the time that she is underemployed).  I didn’t want to be too blunt, but I typically read my comics during time that I would be otherwise unavailable to work (bathroom).

  18. @JeffR — it should be noted, however, that just like not all TV shows are soaps, not all comics are, well, soaps, either.

    It’s funny, but as I think about it, the advent of "writing for the trade" has changed things, and moved things away from the classic soap opera style plotting of 80’s comics.

    In the era I was referring to, you’d have a "Storm" plot in the X-men, but then something is going on with Kitty Pryde. Only a few pages are devoted to it, but as Storm’s sub-plot ends, Kitty’s ramps up into a full-blown plot. Right?

    That doesn’t happen as much. Now it’s more like an A-plot for six issues, and then we move to the next A-plot. Or if there is a B-plot, it stays a B-plot and is also resolved within the span of six issues. 

    It’s not to say this is bad or good. It’s just one style over another.

    Some TV show work very well in the done-in-one format. Others, like 24, completely utilize the soap opera serialization.

    But I would like to see some of the 80’s style plotting come back. It’s a great use for the serialized format (although admittedly, doesn’t play as well to a "graphic novel" audience). I suspect most people around my age became hooked on comics for exactly the same reason that people got hooked on soaps. Someone gave them one, and then they HAD to know what happened next.



  19. @daccampo – That is how I got into them the first time.  The first issue I remember reading was G.I. Joe #21 (the silent issue).  That issue ends with the reveal that Snake-Eyes and Strom Shadow’s pasts were intertwined (via a tattoo).  I was instantly hooked and had to know where that was going.  If long lost brothers (revealed by a TATTOO!) isn’t a soap opera trope, then I don’t know what is.

  20. @stuclach  I was confused why you were originally budgeting for the time that it takes to watch a show and not the time that it takes to read (and drive to the store to buy) comics.  Either is theoretically ‘time you could be working’.  I still don’t really get it but I suspect it doesn’t matter.   

    @daccampo  I’d like a return to *anything at all* happening in a single issue of many comics.  A lot of times now it seems like the writers settle on a halfway point that’s neither a satisfying self-contained story nor tightly plotted arc but a random accumulation of events (the later issues of ‘Ultimate X-Men’ were the epitome of this approach, but I notice it in a lot of books, mostly ones I end up dropping).  I don’t know whether studying ‘Days of Our Lives’ would help writers with this, but as I recall soaps at least have pressure for something exciting to happen on Friday, or during sweeps.

  21. @ohcaroline – I just forgot to do it for the first post.  You were entirely correct that it should be taken into account.

  22. Great article. I’d never really thought of it in this sense, but its absolutly true. And as much as I hate to admit it, in my much younger years, for a couple of months, I was hooked on Days of our Lives as well just becasue my mom would watch it while we were eating supper.

  23. @ohcaroline — I think we’re at an odd spot in the evolution of comics storytelling. I’ve seen writers go through phases where they talk about widescreen and decompression, and then I’ve seen writers rebel against that and talk about compressing things again. I feel like we’re still seeing the fallout from that. Writers trying to find the groove that works best.

    I don’t think the answer is to go back to clunky, heavily expositional, compressed storytelling.That said, the "chapters of a graphic novel" approach doesn’t always satisfy, as you mentioned. I’ve seen different folks experiment with different things. I’m not sure we’ve seen the best evolution yet.

    It may also depend on the market. If bookstore/graphic novel sales win out, then the most important pacing is for that format. However… with digital comics on the rise… hmmm… I suspect we could see storytelling shift again… and I think a swing back toward the soapy style of storytelling could actually work really well with a $.099 internet iTunes distribution model.

  24. Victor Kiriakis owns your soul, bitches!

  25. @Diabhol – Stefano would bitch slap Victor, impregnate him, brick him into a sealed room, let him out to deliver the baby, have satan possess the baby, seal the baby in the room with him, and then go kidnap Victor’s entire family.  

    He would then make Victor’s family eat his shit, then shit out their shit made up of his shit, then make Victor eat their shit that is made up of his shit, then make Victor eat his own shit that is made up of his family’s shit that contains Stefano’s shit.  Stefano is a big fan of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

    Stefano also feels that Victor is the one that is the cock sucker.