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“That’s like something out of a comic book.”

There’s almost no phrase more derisive about a story. If someone says this to you about something you’ve written, they mean that your tale has gone beyond fantastic and steps dangerously close to realm of the ridiculous. There’s not much worse an insult, except for perhaps:

“Quit with the soap opera act already!”

What was it about both graphic novels and daytime dramas that made them so compelling to their enthusiasts? The histories of Comic Books and Soap Operas make for an interesting comparison. Both were born during the wake of the depression. Both tell stories in serial formats with decades-long continuities. Both are associated with a unique set of genres and traditions that appeal to a fervent (and some might suggest fanatical) fan base.

The first comic books were essentially collections of newspaper strips. The stories of original comic books, it is suggested, grew out of the tradition of pulp magazines. The phrase “comic books” seems to have been influenced by the nickname for the strips (called funnies or funny papers). By 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster invented Superman, perhaps the first costumed super-hero and a new genre was born. The medium of comic books would ever after be associated with muscled men in tights.

Radio plays, in the ages before television, were the primary mode of mass media. Families would sit around the radio and listen to their favorite shows, quietly enjoying the likes of Jack Benny, or The Shadow. In 1930, a former teacher and actress named Irna Phillips created a show called Painted Dreams, for which she wrote and voiced two of the female roles. Painted Dreams is recognized as the first ever soap opera, a term coined by the news media in regards to the prevalent sponsors of the daytime radio programming, generally soap companies like Procter and Gamble, targeting the house-wife demographic. Miller is more famous for having created Guiding Light, originally a 15-minute radio soap opera that continues in televised form today.

The kinds of stories that took place in comic books during the 30s and 40s were initially vignettes and short adventures with an occasional cliff-hanger. It’s considered that early comics publishers followed trends without question. The range of genres, especially at the end of the World War II, shifted greatly. There were stories written to appeal to boys and girls alike, westerns, romances, mystery, horror, super-hero. At the time, there was no end to the variety found under the counter at the local soda fountain or drugstore.

The Soap Opera, as envisioned by pioneers like Phillips, her protégé Agnes Nixon, and William Bell, were to be heard by housewives, stuck at home with a child to raise. The original radio plays were created to be scintillating enough to sell their product. When Guiding Light was first introduced to television viewers on CBS in 1951, producers and sponsors were unsure if their audience would be able to watch their shows and get their daily chores done simultaneously. The radio and televised versions of Guiding Light aired concurrently for 6 years, until the radio series was phased out.

In 1956, Phillips made a new innovation. Her new show As the World Turns was the first ever half-hour Soap Opera. Every other daytime drama on the air eventually adopted the new 30-minute format. The new formats introduced on As the World Turns allowed for a slower pace, and a larger cast of characters, while pioneer usage of multiple cameras captured actors facial expressions more clearly. After that the average soap opera, while still considered somewhat of a trash source of storytelling, conveyed over two and a half hours of narrative per week, and many commercial dollars from sponsors.

Meanwhile, comic books had creative setbacks. After Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent inspired a witch-hunt on comics publishers and spawned the Comics Code of America, comic books, for the next several decades were seen as the purview for a different kind of trash media. Comics were seen as the path on which the nation’s youth traveled toward juvenile delinquency.

Another comparison that can be made between Soap Operas and Comic Books is the way that fans and/or marketers have tried to re-invent the nicknames of their favorite storytelling devices. Like with comics popular phrase Graphic Novel, Soap Operas were dubbed Daytime Dramas, perhaps to escape the association with the trashy kinds of stories that come to mind when referring to Soap Operas.

As the 20th century passed into the 21st, comic books and soap operas have grown a bit past the narrative ghettoes to which they had been confined.

While both are still seen as gutter stories that play to the lowest common denominator, they each have generated a large and incredibly fervent fan base. Both sets of fans are known for incredible loyalty, occasionally beyond reason and propriety. More sedate fans merely compile generous timelines including ridiculously long continuities. As comics worlds get re-invented every decade or so, it’s sobering to consider that a typical Soap Opera reality (one would assume, and discounting dream sequences and the like) exist within a single continuity, with an evolving cast of characters, much less that any one person could keep track of it all.

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