Friday, January 13, 2017

The 75th Anniversary of Archie

It was on December 22 1941 that Archie Andrews, better known simply as Archie, made his first ever appearance. It was as a back up feature in Pep Comics #22 (December 1941), sandwiched between various superhero and action/adventure strips. Archie was not even mentioned on the cover. Despite this, Archie and his friends at Riverdale High School have since become an established part of American popular culture. Archie has been adapted to several different media, including a newspaper comic strip, a radio show, several animated TV series, and the upcoming live action series Riverdale. The character's enduring popularity may be due in large part to his sheer longevity. Alongside Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, he is one of the few characters to have been published continuously since the Golden Age of Comic Books.

Pep Comics, the comic book in which Archie made his first appearance, was published by MLJ Magazines. The company had been founded in 1939 and took its name from the first names of its founders: Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit, and John L. Goldwater. Like many comic book companies in the early days of the Golden Age, they originally made their name with superheroes. Pep Comics #1 (January 1940) saw the debut of The Shield, the first ever patriotic superhero (he predated Captain America by over a year). MLJ Magazines would produce a few more popular heroes besides The Shield, including The Black Hood (who had a short-lived radio show and his own pulp magazine) and The Hangman. By the time Archie first appeared, MLJ was already doing quite well in the comic book business.

Indeed, Archie was not even the first teen humour character published by MLJ. Wilbur Wilkin, made his first appearance in Zip Comics #18 (September 1941), about three months before Archie's debut. Wilbur differed from Archie in that he was blond, but that was very nearly the only difference. Like Archie, Wilbur was part of a love triangle, although Wilbur was dating a blonde while being pursued by a brunette. And like Archie he tended to be a bit clumsy. That having been said, Wilbur Wilkin never saw the success that Archie Andrews would.

As to the creation of Archie, that has long been up for debate.  Publisher John L. Goldwater claimed that he had been inspired by either the teenage character of Henry Aldrich (then well known from the radio show The Aldrich Family and the series of "Henry Aldrich" movies spun off from it) or the teenage character of Andy Hardy (played by Mickey Rooney in a series of films) to create Archie, and drew upon his own experiences for the various characters. He then assigned writer/artist Bob Montana to the project.

Despite John L. Goldwater's claim to have created Archie, there is another who has also been credited with the character's creation. Quite simply, artist and writer Bob Montana drew upon his own experiences as a teenager (which in 1941 would not have been that long ago) to create Archie and his friends. From 1936 to 1939 Bob Montana kept a sketchbook of life at Central High School in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Evidence in favour of Mr. Montana's creation of the characters came when his daughters published the sketchbook online for a time several years ago. Yet more evidence supporting the claim that Bob Montana created Archie and the gang at Riverdale came in the form of film critic Gerald Peary's documentary Archie's Betty (2015), in which Mr. Peary sought to track down the real life people from Haverhill upon whom Archie and his friends may have been based.

Of course, it is possible that there is some truth to both John L. Goldwater and Bob Montana's claims to have created Archie, particularly given the collaborative nature of Golden Age comic books. As MLJ's publisher, John L. Goldwater might have come up with the initial idea of a comic feature centred around an ordinary teenage boy, drawing inspiration from Henry Aldrich, Andy Rooney, or both. It even seems possible that the character of Archie derived his name from one of Mr. Goldwater's childhood friends as he claimed. It seems possible that John L. Goldwater then assigned Bob Montana to produce such a comic book feature and Mr. Montana then developed the various characters based on his experiences at Central High School in Haverhill. It seems possible John L. Goldwater even had some input into those characters. Sadly, since everyone at MLJ Magazines in 1941 is dead now, it seems likely we will never know the whole truth behind the creation of Archie.

Pep Comics #22 not only marked the first appearance of Archie, but also blonde girl-next-door Betty and his best friend Jughead, as well as Archie's parents. Betty's friend and rival for Archie's affections, Veronica, would be introduced a few months later, in Pep Comics #26 (April 1942). Archie's rival Reggie would appear for the first time a few months later, in Jackpot Comics #6 (Summer 1942). Other characters, such as Moose and Midge, would be added over the next several years.

The appearance of the characters would change even during the Golden Age. Archie in his first appearance in Pep Comics looked somewhat goofier than he would later, to the point many people today might not recognise the character in his first appearances. Over time Bob Montana's style would change, so that by the late Forties Archie somewhat more resembled the character that American Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are familiar with.

Regardless, Archie proved very popular very quickly. Almost from the beginning he was appearing as a backup feature in two comic books (Pep Comics and Jackpot Comics). With Pep Comics #36 (February 1942) he made his first appearance on the magazine's cover, although he shared it with The Shield and Hangman. With Pep Comics #41 (August 1943) he  began regularly appearing on its covers, always with The Shield and Hangman. By Pep Comics #51 (December 1944) Archie had entirely displaced The Shield on the covers of the magazine. Archie received his own magazine in December 1942 with Archie Comics #1. In 1946 MLJ Magazines even changed their name to Archie Comics. The last vestiges of MLJ's superhero past would be swept away when The Shield G-Man Club (introduced with Pep Comics #15, May 1941) became the Archie Club with Pep Comics #66 (March 1948).

The continued popularity of Archie would see new comic books featuring the character as the Forties progressed. Black Hood Comics became Laugh Comics with issue 21 (winter 1946), another title featuring Archie and the Riverdale gang. The year 1949 saw the first spinoff from the Archie feature, Archie's Pal Jughead #1(January 1949). It would be followed by Archie's Rival Reggie (February 1950) and Archie's Girls Betty and Veronica (March 1950).

The appearance of the Archie characters would change with the Fifties. Dan DeCarlo, who had previously worked on Millie the Model at the company later known as Marvel Comics, had first started freelancing for Archie Comics in the early Fifties. In 1957 Mr. DeCarlo began working for Archie Comics on a more regular basis. Given permission to use his own style rather than trying to mimic that of Bob Montana, Mr. DeCarlo established the look of Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and other characters with which most Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are familiar. Quite simply, Dan DeCarlo's style became Archie Comics' house style for decades to come. The year 2015 saw a relaunch of the "Archie" titles, complete with a more modern look for the characters.

Over the years further titles featuring Archie and his friends would be added, including such titles as Archie's Pals 'n' Gals, Little Archie, Life with ArchieArchie's Mad House, and yet others. New characters would also be added to the feature. Chuck Clayton, the first African American character in the "Archie"feature, was introduced in Life with Archie #110 (June 1971). Cheryl Blossom, a redhead who would serve as both Betty and Veronica's rival for Archie, first appeared in Betty and Veronica #320 (October 1982). Kevin Keller, the first gay character to appear in the "Archie' titles, was introduced in Veronica #202 (September 2010).

The popularity of Archie would soon lead to the feature being adapted to other media. On May 31 1943 the radio show The Adventures of Archie Andrews debuted on the NBC Blue Network, only about a year and a half after the character first appeared in comic books. This initial incarnation of The Adventures of Archie Andrews would only last until December 24 1943. It would not be off the air for long. It returned only a few weeks later on the Mutual Broadcasting System as a 15 minute programme on January 17 1944. This version would last until June 2 1944, after which the show would be off the air for a whole year. It returned on June 2 1945 as a 30 minute show that was broadcast once a week on NBC. This time the show lasted until September 5 1953. In all The Adventures of Archie Andrews lasted nine years, a long time for any radio show.

In 1946 Archie Andrews found himself in another medium. It was that year that McClure Newspaper Syndicate began the newspaper comic strip Archie. Archie was drawn and written by Bob Montana himself, who would continue to do so for the next 28 years. Dan DeCarlo took over the Archie newspaper strip following Bob Montana's death. In 1992  writer Craig Boldman began collaborating with Dan DeCarlo on the newspaper strip. Craig Boldman collaborated with artist Henry Scarpelli for much of the Nineties until 2009. Fernando Ruiz then took over as the newspaper strip's artist. The Archie newspaper comic strip continues to this day, after nearly 70 years in publication. It is currently distributed by Creators Syndicate.

While Archie would see success both on radio and newspapers, success on live action television would evade Archie and the Riverdale gang. In 1962 a pilot titled Life with Archie was produced for ABC. Life with Archie starred Frank Bank, best known for playing Lumpy on Leave It to Beaver, as Archie Andrews. Former child actor Jimmy Hawkins played Jughead, while Barbara Parkins (later of Peyton Place) played Veronica and former Mousketeer Cheryl Holdridge played Betty. The pilot failed to sell because the prospective sponsor, American Tobacco Company, could not see Frank Bank as anything but Lumpy on Leave It to Beaver.

A second pilot, simply titled Archie, was produced by Screen Gems in 1964. This pilot was once again produced for ABC. In this pilot Archie Andrews was played by John Simpson, whose only other credit is as one of the dead in Night of the Living Dead (1968). Betty was once more played by Cheryl Holdridge, while Veronica was played by Mikki Jamison, who would later play Officer Jim Reed's wife Jean on Adam-12. Jughead was played by Jerry Brite, for whom Archie would remain his only credit. Archie very nearly made it to ABC's fall schedule, but was bumped in favour of another show.

The Seventies would see two more live-action pilots for TV shows based on the "Archie" comic book feature. Once more both pilots were for ABC. The first of the two pilots, simply called Archie, aired on December 19 1976. David Caruso (later of N.Y.P.D. Blue and CSI: Miami fame) was set to play Archie Andrews, but a contract dispute before rehearsals resulted in the part going to Dennis Bowen, who had the recurring role of Todd on Welcome Back, Kotter. Audrey Landers, later a star on Dallas, played Betty. Hilary Thompson, who would later appear on the sitcom Operation Petticoat, played Veronica. Derrel Maury, who played Jughead, later went onto appear on the TV shows Apple Pie and Joanie Loves Chachi. This pilot did not sell and a second pilot with the same cast was made. This pilot, titled The Archie Situation Comedy Musical Variety Show, aired on August 5 1978. It did not sell either. Both pilots were a mixture of sketch comedy, situation comedy, and music. Neither are particularly well respected today.

Yet another pilot would be attempted in 1990, although this would have a twist. Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again featured the characters fifteen years after they had graduated from Riverdale High School. Archie was a lawyer who was engaged to someone other than Betty or Veronica. Betty was a grade school teacher. Veronica had been married and divorced four times. Jughead had gone through a particularly tough divorce. Christopher Rich, who would play Miller Redfield on Murphy Brown, played Archie. Lauren Holly, later of Picket Fences, played Betty. Karen Kopins, who had appeared on Dallas, played Veronica. Sam Whipple, who had appeared on Open All Night and would later appeared on Seven Days, played Jughead. Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again aired on NBC on May 6 1990. It did not receive particularly good reviews and performed miserably in the ratings. A new series was then not in the offing.

While no live action series based on the "Archie"comic book feature would emerge in the 20th Century, the 21st Century will see a TV show based on Archie and his friends. Riverdale is set to debut on The CW on January 26 2017. Riverdale looks to be a much darker take on the world of Archie and his friends than the original teen humour comic book feature. Indeed, comparisons have been made to Twin Peaks.

While Archie would see little success on live-action television, it has seen a good deal of success with regards to animated TV series. On September 14 1968 the Saturday morning cartoon The Archie Show debuted on CBS. The Archie Show was produced by Filmation and was a fairly loyal adaptation of the comic books of the time. An important part of the show was music. On the show Archie, Jughead, Veronica, Betty, and Reggie had their own band called "The Archies". Don Kirshner served as the music supervisor on the show and assembled a group of studio musicians to record The Archies' songs. Even though The Archies existed nowhere but the animated cartoon, the fictional group would have hits in the real world. Their first single "Sugar Sugar" went to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Jingle Jangle" peaked at no. 10, while "Bang-Shang-A-Lang" peaked at no. 22.

The Archie Show proved enormously popular. It would even start a prolonged cycle on Saturday mornings of cartoons centred around fictional bands, including The Cattanooga Cats, The Hardy Boys, The Brady Kids, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids, and yet others. Even  Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! owes something to The Archie Show. As originally conceived, it would have been about a rock band that travels around the country solving mysteries. In the end Hanna-Barbera dropped the music angle entirely. The Archie Show led to two more Archie Comics properties making it to television. Hanna-Barbera, looking at the success of The Archie Show got the rights to Archie Comics' title Josie to create Josie and the Pussycats, which was another show with a fictional band. Filmation themselves got the rights to Sabrina the Teenage Witch and introduced her in segments during The Archie Comedy Hour in 1969. She received her own series in 1971.

The Archie Show would prove so successful that Archie and the Riverdale gang would occupy Saturday mornings for much of the Seventies. That having been said, its format would change over time. In 1969 the show was expanded to an hour as The Archie Comedy Hour. Archie's Funhouse in 1970 incorporated an audience of children before a giant jukebox. Archie's TV Funnies in 1971 not only featured Archie and the gang, but cartoons based on such newspaper strips as Dick Tracy, Nancy, and so on. The U.S. of Archie in 1974 had the characters re-enacting moments from American history. While all of these shows aired on CBS, in 1977 The New Archie and Sabrina Hour aired on NBC. The show was a mixture of new segments and segments from earlier shows. The New Archie and Sabrina Hour would receive poor ratings and would not even last out the season. It would be the last Filmation show based on Archie Comics to air.

Ten years later, in 1987,  DIC Entertainment produced a new Saturday morning cartoon based on the "Archie" comic book feature. The New Archies centred on Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, and other characters when they were attending Riverdale Junior High. The series only aired for one season on NBC, although it would be repeated in 1989.

It would be another 12 years before the next animated series based on the "Archie" comic book feature. Archie's Weird Mysteries was produced by DIC Entertainment and initially aired on weekday mornings on the broadcast network PAX starting in 1999. Afterwards the series was syndicated to local stations throughout the United States. Archie's Weird Mysteries differed from many adaptations in that it featured Archie and the Riverdale gang investigating monsters and supernatural creatures ranging from a sea monster to vampires. It ran for 40 episodes. A tie-in comic book began in February 2000 and ran for 34 issues.

Archie's Weird Mysteries would result in the only feature length film to feature Archie and his friends. The Archies in Jug Man was a TV movie that debuted on Nickelodeon Sunday Movie Toons and was afterwards released on DVD. In the movie a new, underground, geothermal heating system inadvertently thaws out a frozen Neanderthal who looks a lot like Jughead. The film was produced by DIC Entertainment and used the same cast and many of the same crew as Archie's Weird Mysteries.

In 2013 a new animated series, It's Archie, was announced. The series was to be produced by The MoonScoop Group and would centre on the Archie characters when they were in middle school. Unfortunately since 2013 no new information has been released, so it seems possible that It's Archie might never come to be. 

Archie would ultimately outlast the many other teen humour comic book features that proliferated from the Forties into the Sixties. Archie outlasted Archie Comics' own Wilbur, Marvel Comics' Patsy Walker, DC Comics' Leave It to Binky, and many others. There were many periods during the past 75 years when the Archie titles were the only teen humour comic books being published. Indeed, as pointed out above, along with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, Archie is one of the very few characters to have been published continuously since the Golden Age.

There are probably several reasons that Archie has lasted all these years when other teen humour comic books did not. Much of the reason for Archie's success is most likely the classic love triangle of Archie, Betty, and Veronica. After all, here was an average teenage guy, who was not particularly good looking himself, being pursued by a knockout blonde and a drop dead gorgeous brunette. This scenario was bound to appeal to young boys just discovering girls. It also provided for a great deal of conflict, as Betty and Veronica plotted various means of drawing Archie's attention away from the other.

Of course, even beyond the triangle of Archie, Betty, and Veronica, there has always been an undercurrent of sex running throughout the Archie comic books, especially in the Forties and early Fifties. In Veronica's first appearance in  Pep Comics #26 a number of boys (Archie included) are openly staring at her. When she drops her ruler, the boys struggle to be the one to retrieve it for her. In the early Fifties there is the classic Bob Montana cover of Archie Comics #50 (March 1951). The cover features Betty relaxed on her sofa and saying over her phone, "No, Archie, this isn't Veronica--you called the wrong number, but if you come over to my house I'll gladly refund your nickel!" There has always been a tendency for people to dismiss Archie comic books as clean and wholesome, but for much of their history they portrayed the reality that many teenage boys and girls only have one thing on their mind without becoming overly prurient or salacious. Again, this would give the Archie titles an appeal to any teen just discovering the opposite sex.

Another reason that Archie proved to be such a success is that the various Archie titles lacked the sort of gender boundaries that existed for many comic book titles in the mid-20th Century. It is true that there were girls who read superhero titles and boys who read romance titles, but for the most part during the mid-20th Century comic book genres were drawn along lines of gender. Boys read superhero comic books, Westerns, and war comic books. Girls read romance comic books and the various career girl titles (such as Millie the Model). Teen humour titles in general and the Archie titles in particular differed from other comic books in that they appealed to both sexes equally. Quite simply, there is something in the various Archie titles that appeals to everyone, whether they are male or female, still a teen or long past their teenage years.

Of course, the ultimate reason for the continued popularity of Archie after all these years has only a little to do with the sexual undercurrents in the titles or even the fact that the comic books appeal to both sexes. In the end the reason that Archie has lasted while all other teen humour comics faded away is probably because Archie developed a cast of well developed and often very original characters. While many of the other teen humour titles through the years relied on various teenage stereotypes current at the time, the various Archie titles concentrated on developing characters who often strayed from the popular stereotypes. While Archie was a clumsy, girl crazy teen in the Henry Aldrich or Andy Hardy mould, Jughead was cynical, generally indifferent to girls, and could be downright sarcastic at times. Betty was blonde and sweet natured, but she was never dumb. In fact, she is one of the most intelligent characters in the "Archie" comic book feature. Veronica was spoiled and vain, but she can often be sweet and concerned about others as well. Very few of the Archie characters are one-dimensional, not even supporting characters such as Moose and Mr. Weatherbee. Most of them are complex characters who went well beyond those featured in other teen humour books from the Forties and the Fifties. This has allowed the various Archie titles to survive while many other teen humour comic books have fallen by the wayside.

This past December Archie celebrated 75 years of existence, far longer than many other comic book characters. He has appeared on radio, in a newspaper comic strip that continues to this day, on live action television, and in several animated TV series. In the end Archie has proven to be the most successful teen humour character in any medium. After all, most people today don't know who Henry Aldrich or Andy Hardy are, but they certainly know who Archie Andrews is. One has to suspect that Archie will be around for another 75 years.

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