By Bob Montana and many & various (Archie Comics)
For most of us, comicbooks mean buff men and women in capes and tights hitting each other, lobbing trees and cars about, or stark, nihilistic genre thrillers aimed at an extremely mature and sophisticated readership of confirmed fans – and indeed that has been the prolific norm for nearly twenty years.
However, over the decades since the medium was created in 1933, other forms of sequential illustrated fiction genres have held their own. One that has maintained a unique position over the years – although almost now completely transferred 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 wholeheartedly onto the superhero 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 accepted blend of costumed heroes, two-fisted adventure strips and one-off gags. Pep made history with its lead feature The Shield – the industry’s first super-hero to be clad in the flag – but generally MLJ were followers not innovators
That all changed at the end of 1941. Even while profiting from the Fights ‘N’ Tights phalanx, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater (hence MLJ) spotted a gap in their blossoming market and in December of that year the action strips were joined by a wholesome, ordinary hero; an “average teen” who had human-scaled adventures like the readers, but with the laughs, good times, romance and slapstick heavily 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 movies starring Mickey Rooney, Goldwater developed the concept of a wholesome youthful everyman lad, tasking writer Vic Bloom and artist Bob Montana with the job of making it work.
It all started with an innocuous 6-page tale entitled ‘Archie’ which introduced Archie Andrews and pretty girl-next-door Betty Cooper. Archie’s unconventional best friend and confidante Forsythe P. “Jughead” Jones also debuted in that first story as did the small-town utopia of Riverdale.
It was an instant hit and by the winter of 1942 the feature graduated to its own title. Archie Comics #1 was the company’s first non-anthology magazine and began an inexorable 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 and, retiring its heroic characters years before the end of the Golden Age, the company renamed itself Archie Comics, becoming to all intents and purposes a publisher of family comedies.
Its success, like the Man of Tomorrow’s, forced a change in 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.
Over the decades those costumed cut-ups have returned on occasion but Archie Comics now seem content to specialise in what they do uniquely best.
The eponymous Archie is a good-hearted lad lacking common sense and Betty – the pretty, sensible, devoted girl next door, with all that entails – loves the ridiculous redhead. Veronica is spoiled, exotic and glamorous and only settles for our boy if there’s nobody better around. She might actually love him too, though. Archie, of course, can’t decide who or what he wants…
This never sordid eternal triangle has been the basis of seventy years of charmingly raucous, gently preposterous, 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.
Adapting seamlessly to every trend and fad of the growing youth culture, the host of writers and artists who’ve crafted the stories over the decades have made the “everyteen” characters of utopian Riverdale a benchmark for youth and a visual barometer of growing up American.
Archie’s unconventional best friend Jughead 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. There’s even a scurrilous Tybalt figure in the Machiavellian shape of Reggie Mantle who first popped up to cause mischief in Jackpot comics #5 (Spring 1942).
This beguiling triangle (and annexe) has been the rock-solid foundation for decades of comics magic. Moreover the concept is eternally self-renewing…
Archie has thrived by constantly reinventing its core characters, seamlessly adapting to the changing world outside the bright, flimsy pages, shamelessly co-opting youth, pop culture and fashion trends into its infallible mix of slapstick and young romance.
Each and every social revolution has been painlessly assimilated into the mix with the editors tastefully confronting a number of social issues affecting the young in a manner both even-handed and tasteful over the years.
The cast is always growing and the constant addition of new characters such as African-American Chuck – who wants to be a cartoonist – his girlfriend Nancy, fashion-diva Ginger, Hispanic couple Frankie and Maria and a host of like spoiled home-wrecker-in-waiting Cheryl Blossom all contribute to a wide and refreshingly broad-minded scenario. In 2010 Archie jumped the final hurdle with Kevin Keller, an openly gay young man and clear-headed advocate capably tackling and dismantling the last major taboo in mainstream comics.
Of course such a wealth of material has provided for a splendid library of trade paperbacks and collected editions since the dawn of the Graphic Novel market at the beginning of the 1980s. In recent years the company has found many clever ways to repackage their irresistible product such as a series of reprint volumes examining the progress decade-by-decade.
This particular iteration of The Best of Archie Comics tweaks that idea by providing a sampling from each era in one big book, with the further fillip of the tales being favourites personally selected by editorial staff like Editor in Chief Victor Gorelick and Ellen Leonforte, creators – vintage and current – like J. Torres, Dan Parent and Fernando Ruiz or avowed celebrity fans such as Kyle Gass (Tenacious D), Joel Hodgson (Science Mystery Theater 3000), Tom Root (Robot Chicken) and Stan Lee.
Archie in ‘The 1940s’ is superbly represented by a wealth of wry and riotous slapstick shenanigans beginning with ‘The 3-11 Club’ (by Bob Montana from Pep #36, 1943) which finds the young sap drawn into a duel with a Prep School cadet after taking haughty, fickle Veronica to a swanky night spot.
Co-creator Montana supplied most of these early episodes, such as the medieval fantasy-fest ‘Sir Archibald of the Round Table’ (Archie #2 1943) and the delightfully heart-warming tale of a boy and his dog – and the ten puppies which resulted when everybody misapprehended the gender of ‘Oscar’ (Pep #37 1943)…
Ed Goggin, Harry Sahle – and his favourite inker “Ginger” – captured the contentious boisterousness of ‘Spring Fever’ (Archie #2 1943), after which the red menace got another irksome pet in ‘Monkey Shines’ (by Montana from Archie #6, 1945), before a broken School clock made ‘Time for Trouble’ (Sahle & Ginger, Archie #7, 1945), with the decade closing for us with a catalogue of calamity in the Goggin/Sahle/Ginger exposé ‘Camera Bugs’ from Pep #48, 1946.
An era of conformity, stability and expansion, ‘The 50s’ open with ‘The Cook-Off’ (Little Archie #2, 1956) as Bob Bolling expertly extrapolates on the grade school years of that eternal love triangle and the boy learns early the wages of “sin” is bewilderment and a headache. Teen Veronica then takes centre stage in ‘Poor Little Rich Whirl’ by George Frese & Terry Szenics (Archie Annual #8, 1956-1957) flaunting her wealth to poor little Betty, and the section concludes with a rare full-length 5 part yarn from Jughead #1, 1957.
Here the ravenous nonconformist discovers the downside of becoming a global singing sensation in ‘Jughead’s Folly’ by the amazing Joe Edwards.
‘The 1960s’ were a time when youth culture took over everything and ‘Over-Joyed’ by Frank Doyle, Harry Lucey & Marty Epp (Archie #123, 1961) begins a second Golden Age for laughter as the carrot-topped Lothario endures a self-inflicted barrage of silent comedy catastrophes, before ‘Hi-Jinx and Deep Divers’ (by Bob White from Life with Archie #16, 1962) cleverly changes tack for a sub-sea science fiction adventure which finds Messrs. Andrews and Mantle battling mermen at the bottom of the sea…
In Archie’s Pals and Gals #29, 1964 Doyle, the brilliant Samm Schwartz & Epp superbly spoofed the British Pop Invasion by having the disgruntled lads of Riverdale form their own mop-top band in the still-hilarious ‘Beetlemania’, after which ‘The Hold Up’ by Doyle, Dan DeCarlo, Rudy Lapick & Vince DeCarlo offers a sharp and silly pre-Pussycats tale from She’s Josie #19, 1966.
In it rich brat Alexander Cabot III expends insane amounts of energy trying to get robbed because he hates anybody thinking he might be poor…
Apparently the most disturbing thing about Jughead is that he prefers food to girls – a situation the torrid teen temptresses of Riverdale High attempt to correct through modern technology in ‘Pardon My Computer’ by George Gladir, Schwartz & Epp (Jughead #119, 1966), after which the lad proves his love for cunning pranks in ‘Voice Control’ (Doyle & Schwartz from Jughead #120, 1966).
Practical jokes are an Art form in Riverdale – as seen in ‘Stick with It’ (Archie #178 Doyle, Lucey, Bill Yoshida & Barry Grossman) and the kids played with reality itself in ‘Visit to a Small Panic’ (Everything’s Archie #1 Gladir, Lucey, Epp & Yoshida) when they all visited the Hollywood animation studios then creating their Saturday Morning Cartoon Show.
A time of style-challenged sensuous silliness and ethical questing, ‘The ‘70s’ is represented here with ‘The Bye Bye Blues’ (Laugh #276, 1974, Doyle, Lucey, Yoshida & Grossman) wherein the kids practise their life-governing philosophies to great effect, whilst Reggie’s adoption of the wrong spirit after watching ‘Kong Phoo’ (Archie at Riverdale High #18, 1974) by Doyle & Lucey only leads to personal pain and sorrow…
‘Minding a Star’ (Archie #264, 1977, by Doyle, Dan & Jim DeCarlo & Grossman) finds our brick-topped hero babysitting a TV celebrity chimp, whilst the Star Wars phenomena hit mean Mantle hard in ‘Costume Caper’ from Reggie and Me #104 (1978, Doyle, Dan DeCarlo Jr., Jim DeCarlo, Yoshida & Grossman).
The girls had their own pet passions as seen in the superb spoof ‘Melvin’s Angels’ (Betty & Veronica #277, 1979) from Doyle, Dan & Jim DeCarlo, Yoshida & Grossman.
‘The ‘80s’ are still with us, of course, so the green message of ‘Verve to Conserve’ (by Gladir, DeCarlo Jr., Lapick & Yoshida from Archie # 292, 1980) retains much of the original merit and mirth, whilst Josie’s ongoing war with the Cabot clan on Sports Day results in ‘Scratch One Clown’ (Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #86, 1982, by Dan DeCarlo Jr., Jim DeCarlo & Yoshida).
Parental control and filial responsibility result in upset and big laughs in ‘Saturday’s Child’ (Archie #331, 1984 Doyle, Dan DeCarlo Jr. & Jim DeCarlo), whilst ‘The Plight of the Perilous Pike’ by Bolling, Bob Smith & Yoshida from Archie and Me #144 offers another view of the kids – one that displays their warmth, generosity and good hearts.
Around the same time that DC were first rationalising their sprawling universe, after years of unqualified success Archie Comics similarly undertook a massive gamble in the MTV, computer-game, reading-reduced decade by rebooting and updating the entire franchise.
Betty’s Diary #1, 1987 saw ‘The Art Lesson’ – by Kathleen Webb, Dan & Jim DeCarlo & Yoshida – in which the wholesome blonde showed her character by refusing an award she felt she hadn’t earned. Then ‘Back from the Future’ (Archie Giant Series #590, October 1988, by Rich Margopoulos, Rex Lindsey, Jon D‘Agostino, Yoshida & Grossman and supplemented here by the cover) offers a fanciful comedy drama as the Jones boy is deputised by pretty red-headed, be-freckled mystery girl January McAndrews into the Time Police.
She believes that the slovenly moocher is the only one who can help her save history from malignant chronal crooks. Scary…
‘The ‘90s’ section begins with the uncanny ‘Mystery of the Mummy’s Curse’ (New Archies Digest #10, 1990, by Mike Pellowski, Henry Scarpelli, Yoshida, Grossman, Nanci Tsetsekas & Gregg Suchow), a caper very much in the manner of TV’s Scooby Doo – but with the kids as pre-teens. Next, fame chasing Cheryl Blossom (#15 1995 by Dan Parent, D’Agostino, Yoshida & Grossman) takes time off from trying to steal Archie from Betty and Veronica to briefly pursue a life in reality TV by organising ‘Cheryl’s Beach Bash’…
That Scooby Gang motif was a popular one. In ‘The 2000s’ ‘A Familiar Old Haunt’ (Archie’s Weird Mysteries #6, 2000 by Paul Castiglia, Fernando Ruiz, Rick Koslowski, Vickie Williams & Rick Taylor) found the teenaged Riverdalers exposing charlatan monster-hunters, whilst a manga-style re-imagining of Sabrina (#70, 2005 by Tania Del Rio, Jim Amash, Jeff Powell, Ridge Rooms & Jason Jensen – and see Sabrina the Teenage Witch: The Magic Within Book 1) – found the student sorceress dealing with both mundane and mystical school tests in ‘Spell it Out’…
This marvellous meander down memory lane concludes with ‘2010 and Beyond’ and ‘Something Ventured, Something Gained’ (from Jughead #200, 2010 by Tom Root, Lindsey, Jack Morelli, Parent & Rosario “Tito” Peña) which sees young Forsythe sell his most unappreciated, vital characteristic to a conniving witch and only survive due to the self-sacrifice of his friends…
Also on show are some thoroughly modern spoof and pastiche ‘Variant Covers’ by Andrew Pepoy, Fiona Staples, Ramon Perez & Phil Jimenez from 2012-2013, before everything ends on a delirious dilemma in ‘The Great Switcheroo!’ (Archie #636, 2012 by Del Rio, Gisele, Koslowski, Morelli & Digikore Studios) as well-intentioned magic turns the town into in Reverse-dale and all the boys and girls unknowingly swap genders and problems…
Spanning the entire history of comicbooks and featuring vintage yarns, landmark material and up-to-the-minute modern masterpieces, this is a terrific tome for anybody looking for light laughs and the acceptable happy face of the American Dream.
© 2013 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.