Soap Opera In Comics? Never, Says Saunders
By George A. Brandenburg, 1949
Chicago — As a comic scripter who doubles in brass with two syndicated strips — “Mary Worth” and “Steve Roper” — Allen Saunders likes his work, because he creates “such interesting people” and they get to be “awfully real” to him.
This talented Hoosier who has transplanted himself to Toledo, O., where he was once a newspaper writer, calls himself a “frustrated dramatist,” juggles two sets of adventure strip characters with the greatest of ease, and finds time, also, to serve as continuity editor for other Publishers Syndicate strips.
Differs with Caniff
Although a sincere admirer of Milton Caniff, creator of “Steve Canyon,” Mr. Saunders does not agree with Milt’s terminology, when he refers to adventure strips with a romantic appeal as “soap operas.”
“I don’t consider them soap operas,” he said, referring to Mary Worth and Steve Roper. “I think our approach is entirely different.”
Granting that any story is based on two primary human interest elements—romance and wrong-doing (crime or fighting the Hero), he pointed out that Mary Worth is built around romance or emotional conflict, while Steve Roper emphasizes adventure or physical conflict, with a common denominator of suspense.
“We differ from soap operas heard on the radio in that the latter are based on “infinitesimal progression,’ ” he asserted. “Soap operas unfold at a slow rate so that nobody can miss the story. They proceed at a snail’s pace, with plenty of repetition to hold or build an audience.
“We don’t feel that newspaper readers will hold still for a story that is told at as slow a pace as that of soap operas. We indicate what happened yesterday, show something happening today, and indicate that something much more interesting is going to happen tomorrow.”
Mr. Saunders is frank to admit that in Mary Worth he strikes at the heart instead of the tear ducts. “We make a straight out-and-out emotional appeal,” he said, adding they have to take into consideration that such adventure strips in newspapers have a large male readership.
Like Magazine Fiction
“The average radio soap opera doesn’t hold much appeal to men,” he remarked. “We try to do something comparable to slick paper magazine fiction.”
Working with Alien Saunders are two artists — Ken Ernst, Chicago artist, who draws Mary Worth, and Elmer Woggon, former Toledo newspaper art director, who draws Steve Roper.
Mr. Saunders literally draws his stories in rough pencil layouts, sketching in his characters and writing the dialogue as he goes. The roughs serve as “blueprints” for the artists who do the complete drawings. Working 250 miles apart, Ken and Allen use the long-distance telephone to straighten out complicated situations. They also hold monthly conferences on story episodes.
Scripter Saunders, incidentally, uses what is known as the “revolving stage” technique. As a former “amateur” playwright, he makes every episode different, every locale different, and every set of characters is different in each episode.
Mr. Saunders’ background for his present writing efforts includes cartooning, teaching French and writing detective stories. About 10 years ago, he took over the continuity writing of Mary Worth.
The strip was originally introduced as “Apple Mary” with moderate success. Saunders and Ernst took Mary off the apple stand, streamlined her hairdo and wardrobe, and made her the friend of all sorts of interesting people.
Buried ‘the Hatchet’
Mr. Saunders first collaborated with Elmer Woggon, then art director of the Toledo (O.) Blade. They started with “Chief Wahoo,” then buried the chief and his hatchet, and came forth with “Steve Roper,” a crusading editor of a picture magazine.
Mr. Saunders was graduated from Wabash College in 1920, Phi Beta Kappa. He tried his hand as a professional cartoonist — a boyhood ambition — drawing “Miserable Moments,” a gag cartoon that he now admits was a “dead steal” from Webster’s “Life’s Darkest Moments.” The syndicate never sold enough newspapers on the panel to put it over, so he turned to teaching French at his Alma Mater.
For seven years, Mr. Saunders taught French, drew gag cartoons on the side for the Chicago Daily News and national magazines, and wrote detective stories. Then he got himself a job as a feature writer on the old Toledo (O.) News-Bee, graduating to the “culture department” as theater and book editor, plus a daily humor column.
Elmer Woggon revived his interest in comic strips. He’s been busy ever since, but he seems to thrive on continuity problems, such as selecting names for characters and accurate research. He’s found that smart newspaper readers will trip him up if he isn’t careful. He keeps two people busy on research.
For instance, sometime ago he received a clipping from a newspaper in which a boy reader had written the editor to point out a defect in the Steve Roper strip. It seems that Allen and Elmer had introduced a frozen fountain pen into a scene to prevent the villain from “taking over” until Roper could arrive. Steve, in turn, fired a snowball, knocking the pen from the villain’s hand. The boy reader pointed out that if it was cold enough for the ink to freeze in the fountain pen, it was too cold for Roper to make a snowball.
Civic-minded Saunders has served on the Toledo board of education, library board, is president of the council of social agencies and mental hygiene center. His oldest son, John, is a radio announcer.