Archie & Friends All-Stars: Christmas Stocking

By Dan Parent & various (Archie Comics Publications)
ISBN: 978-1-879794-57-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for all the Good little girls and Boys who deserve something extra-special this year 8/10

My good lady wife and I have a peculiar ritual that I’m not ashamed to share with you. Every Christmas we lock the doors, draw the shutters and stoke up the radiators before settling down with a huge pile of seasonal comics from yesteryear. There’s a few DC’s, a bunch of Disneys and some British annuals, but the huge preponderance is Archie Comics. From the 1950s onwards this seldom-mentioned comics institution has quite literally “owned Christmas” with a gloriously funny, charming, nostalgically sentimental barrage of perfect stories capturing the spirit of the season throughout a range of comicbooks running from Archie to Veronica, Betty to Sabrina and Jughead to Santa himself…

For most of us, when we say comicbooks people’s thoughts turn to buff men and women in garish tights hitting each other and lobbing trees or cars about, or stark, nihilistic crime, horror or science fiction sagas aimed an extremely mature and sophisticated readership of confirmed fans – and indeed that has been the prolific norm of late. Throughout the years though, other forms and genres have waxed and waned but one that has held its ground over the years – although almost completely migrated to television – is the teen-comedy genre begun by and synonymous with a carrot topped, homely (at first just plain ugly) kid named Archie Andrews.

MLJ were a small publisher who jumped on the “mystery-man” bandwagon following the debut of Superman. In November 1939 they launched Blue Ribbon Comics, promptly following with Top-Notch and Pep Comics. The content was the common blend of funny-book costumed heroes and two-fisted adventure strips, although Pep did make some history with its lead feature The Shield, who was the industry’s first super-hero to be clad in the flag (see America’s 1st Patriotic Hero: The Shield)

After initially profiting from the Fights ‘N’ Tights crowd Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater (hence MLJ) were quick to spot a gap in their blossoming market. In December 1941 the costumed heroes and two-fisted adventure strips were supplemented by a wholesome ordinary hero, an “average teen” who would have ordinary adventures like the readers, but with the laughs, good times, romance and slapstick emphasised.

Pep Comics #22 introduced a gap-toothed, freckle-faced red-headed goof showing off to the pretty blonde next door. Taking his lead from the popular Andy Hardy matinee movies starring Mickey Rooney, Goldwater developed the concept of a wholesome youthful everyman protagonist, tasking writer Vic Bloom and artist Bob Montana with the job of making it work. It all started with an innocuous six-page tale entitled ‘Archie’ which introduced boy-goofball Archie Andrews and pretty girl-next-door Betty Cooper. Archie’s unconventional best friend and confidante Jughead Jones also debuted in that first story as did the small-town utopia of Riverdale.

The feature was an instant hit and by the winter of 1942 had graduated to its own title. Archie Comics #1 was the company’s first non-anthology magazine and with it began the slow transformation of the entire company. With the introduction of rich, raven-haired Veronica Lodge, all the pieces were in play for the industry’s second Phenomenon (Superman being the first).

By May 1946 the kids had taken over, so the company renamed itself Archie Comics, retiring its heroic characters years before the end of the Golden Age and becoming to all intents and purposes a publisher of family comedies. Its success, like the Man of Steel’s, changed the content of every other publisher’s titles, and led to a multi-media industry including TV, movies, pop-songs and even a chain of restaurants.

Those costumed cut-ups have returned on occasion (see High Camp Superheroes), but the company now seems content to simply license them to DC whilst they concentrate on what they do uniquely best.

Archie is a well-meaning boy but lacks common sense. Betty is the pretty, sensible girl next door, with all that entails, and she loves Archie. Veronica is rich, exotic and glamorous; she only settles for our boy if there’s nobody better around. She might actually love him, though. Archie, typically, can’t decide who or what he wants…

This family-friendly eternal triangle has been the basis of nearly seventy years of charming, raucous, gentle, frenetic, chiding and even heart-rending comedy encompassing everything from surreal wit to frantic slapstick, as the kids and an increasing cast of friends grew into an American institution. So pervasive is the imagery that it’s a part of Americana itself. Adapting seamlessly to every trend and fad of the growing youth culture, the battalion of writers and artists who’ve crafted the stories over the decades have made the “everyteen” characters of mythical Riverdale a benchmark for youth and a visual barometer of growing up.

Archie’s unconventional best friend Jughead Jones is Mercutio to Archie’s Romeo, providing rationality and a reader’s voice, as well as being a powerful catalyst of events in his own right. That charming triangle (+ one) has the foundation of decades of comics magic. Moreover the concept is eternally self-renewing…

Each social revolution was painlessly assimilated into the mix (the company has managed to confront a number of social issues affecting the young  in a manner both even-handed and tasteful over the years) and the addition of new characters such as Chuck, an African-American kid who wants to be a cartoonist, his girlfriend Nancy, fashion-diva Ginger, Hispanic couple Frankie and Maria and a host of others such a spoiled home-wrecker-in -waiting Cheryl Blossom all contributed to a broad and refreshingly broad-minded scenario.

Archie Comics has always looked to new formats for their material and this volume is the sixth in a line of albums blending old with new and capitalising on the growing popularity of graphic novels. This sparkling volume collects some of the best Christmas stories of recent years as well as an all-original Yule adventure which delightfully shows the overwhelming power of good writing and brilliant art to captivate an audience of any age.

Beginning with ‘Have Yourself a Cheryl Little Christmas’, this volume sees the gang head off en masse for a winter break, not knowing that Queen of Mean Cheryl Blossom is intending to spoil all their fun. Luckily the ever-vigilant Santa knows who’s going to be naughty or nice and dispatches his top agent Jingles the Elf (an Archie regular for decades) to foil her plans…

‘The Night Before Christmas’ adapts the perennial 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” attributed to Clement Clarke Moore into a handy introduction to the Riverdale stars before culminating in a clever and heart-warming family moment for Archie and his long-suffering parents, whilst Jughead’s family take centre-stage in the mini-miracle ‘Playing Santa’.

The stresses of having two girlfriends finally overcomes Archie in ‘A Not-So-Cool Yule’ whilst Veronica’s hard-pressed dad once more gets the short end of the stick in ‘Santa Cause’ before the rivals Betty & Veronica succumb to another bout of insane competition in ‘Tis the Season For… Extreme Decorating’.

That darned elf returns in ‘Jingles All the Way’ trying to pry Archie out from under Betty & Veronica’s shapely thumbs, but faces unexpected opposition from that pixie hottie Sugar Plum the Yule Fairy, and we get a glimpse of the kids’ earliest experiences when Betty digs out her diary for a delightful trip ‘Down Memory Lane’ after which this sparkling comic bauble concludes with another tale based on that inescapable ode in ‘The Nite Before X-Mas!’

These are perfect stories for young and old alike, crafted by those talented Santa’s Helpers Dan Parent, Greg Crosby, Mike Pellowski & George Gladir, and polished up by the artistic talents of Parent, Stan Goldberg, Fernando Ruiz, Rich Koslowski, Bob Smith, Al Milgrom, John Lowe, Jack Morelli, Vickie Williams, Jon D’Agostino, Tito Peña, Barry Grossman and Digikore Studios.

These stories epitomise the magic of the Season and celebrate the perfect wonder of timeless children’s storytelling: What kind of Grinch could not want this book in their stocking?

© 2010 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.