22 June 2007

Josie and The Pussycats (Part Two)

Josie and The Pussycats
The Rumor Everybody's Talking About!
Are Josie and The Pussycats
Breaking Up?!?
by Donny Jacobs
In their heyday, Josie and The Pussycats were among the most popular cartoon characters in the world. They were trailblazers: An all-girl Rock band and an interracial group of musicians, they were the conceptual ancestors of female supergroups like The Bangles, The Go-Go's, Salt 'n' Pepa and The Dixie Chicks. They were globetrotting adventuresses whose exploits were every bit as exciting as those of male comic strip heroes. They were beautiful, tough, brainy and resourceful. They traveled with a hunky roadie, Alan Mayberry, but they didn't need brawny men rushing to their rescue; they could take care of themselves. Their adventures were spiced up by the presence of Alexandra Cabot, a junior Dragon Lady who preceded Joan Collins as the first (pardon the expression) bitch to become popular on TV outside of soap operas; and of course, there was that witchy old cat, Sebastian, who sometimes displayed supernatural powers. Josie and The Pussycats were fresh, they were novel, and they had a sure-fire formula for success.

However, the bloom is definitely off the rose now. There hasn't been a "Josie" comic book for over 20 years. Of late, the characters have only appeared in compilation-type books, usually in reprints, and very seldom. The strip started losing its way sometime in the late '70s. The adventure aspect was de-emphasized in favor of straight slapstick comedy. Sebastian all but disappeared. Ditto for the Josie-Alan-Alexandra triangle. Although much was made of them being a Rock band, they were never really depicted as musicians. Archie Comics never seemed to know if they wanted them to be a successful music act or ordinary high-school girls. (On TV, they always came across as young adults.)

Eventually, they weren't even successful anymore. I remember reading stories where they struggled to get bookings and traveled in a broken-down bus. Dan DeCarlo's artwork got really bad around that time, too. In a special one-shot "revival" issued in the summer of 1984, the girls got sexier costumes, but from then on, the emphasis pretty much stayed on (increasingly bizarre) costuming. Basically, Josie and The Pussycats became a pale imitation of the Archie strip, only with music. Sometimes. On paper, the strip rarely duplicated the winning formula it had on TV, so it's not surprising that the characters' popularity would diminish.

Around 1995, I interviewed Michael Silberkleit, Chairman and co-publisher of Archie Comics. This company controls both the "Archie" and "Josie" characters. Silberkleit didn't have very much time for me, but I talked to him long enough to learn some interesting facts about the Josie strip. I knew it had been launched in the late 1950s, but I didn't know the circumstances. I asked him who came up with the character of Josie James (now known as Josie McCoy). He told me:

(Josie) is the wife of Dan DeCarlo, one of our artists. (Dan) was one of the creators. There were several people involved . . . my partner, Richard (Goldwater) was involved, his father (John Goldwater) was involved, I was involved, and my father (Louis Silberkleit) was involved. The four of us, at one point, were the co-owners of the business.

John Goldwater and Louis Silberkliet were two of the partners who founded MLJ Comics in 1939. Over decades, MLJ evolved into Archie Comic Publications.

We would meet daily for lunch, and we'd have discussions about these things. Everybody had some input into (the creation of) the strip. This goes back into the '60s. But I can tell you that the name "Josie" comes from DeCarlo's wife.

Josephine DeCarlo was reportedly the visual model for Josie, too. In the 1990s, Dan DeCarlo sued Archie Comics for ownership of Josie and The Pussycats. During the course of the lawsuit, which was unsuccessful, he was replaced as the strip's artist. Unfortunately, he died of pneumonia at the turn of the century. I asked Michael Silberkleit if the Melody Jones character (now called Melody Valentine) had been based on anyone in particular. Silberkleit confirmed what I'd long suspected:

(Melody), I think, was just a Marilyn Monroe character.

Originally, the strip featured a White girl named Pepper in place of Valerie, the Black character. It's been widely accepted that Hanna-Barbera introduced Valerie because a Black singer, Patrice Holloway, was hired to sing on the TV soundtrack. Silberkleit shot down this idea in no uncertain terms:

It was Archie Comics' idea to introduce the Black character, Valerie Smith.

She now goes by the name Val Brown. I then asked Silberkleit how the "Josie and The Pussycats" TV show came about.

The way I understand it, (Archie Comics) went to Hanna-Barbera. We'd done a deal to do The Archies on television, and the Archies singing group came out of the "Archie" show. We went to Hanna-Barbera and offered them Josie and The Pussycats. We signed a contract for them to develop so many shows and do them for television. The shows were gonna be owned jointly by my company and their company. Somewhere along the line . . . music came into (the agreement). I wouldn't be surprised if that didn't come out of our company, because we were capitalizing on the success of The Archies. This was a long time ago, and I really can't tell you who was present at the meetings . . . but we certainly must've come up with the idea of the music. And then Hanna-Barbera went out and did it. I remember that Cheryl Ladd and some other people were involved in the singing group. We had nothing to do with that. We just gave them the license . . .

La La Productions, a company affiliated with Capitol Records, was assigned to produce the Josie and The Pussycats soundtrack. They hired a trio of vocalists with plans to send them out on tour. However, they ended up being a studio group only. The group (they didn't play instruments on their records) did include Cheryl Ladd and the aforementioned Patrice Holloway, both of whom sang lead vocals. Sadly, Ms. Holloway died of heart failure earlier this year (see my blogpost titled "Woman With A Feeling"). The Pussycats' records didn't sell, and the group broke up after less than a year, but the cartoon series remained popular in syndication. Michael Silberkleit brought the Josie story up to date for me:

They made a certain number of episodes and showed them on television . . . ultimately, Hanna-Barbera was sold to Turner (Broadcasting) and along with that went the "Josie" shows. Now we have signed an agreement with Turner, giving them distribution rights and things like that.

Subsequently, the original "Josie" episodes were telecast over Turner Broadcasting's Cartoon Network and became more popular than ever. Later, Turner was absorbed by the Time Warner Corporation, and two Josie and The Pussycats compilation videocassettes were released on Warner Home Video.

When we saw that the shows were on television again . . . we decided to reissue some of the old Josie (comic book) stories to capitalize on the success of the TV show, but . . . the sales of the magazines have been very disappointing. I think that has to do with promotion. Nobody knows who the Hell Josie is anymore, except the people who grew up with Josie as kids. (So) I've optioned Josie to a major motion-picture studio, and I think a lot will depend on what's gonna happen . . . the Flintstones movie has just come out, and even with lousy reviews it's, like, a box office smash! That's gonna prove to the movie people, I think, tht all these cartoon shows are very good as movies. We have optioned "Archie" to Universal Studios, and Universal's gonna make an Archie movie. Since Universal (released) the Flintstones movie, I think they're gonna be very happy to start work on my Archie movie (and) when the Archie movie comes out and is a big success, I think it'll just follow that someone will bring out the Josie movie.

It didn't work out that way. Universal's "Josie and The Pussycats" movie came and went from movie theatres in 2001, and the long-rumored Archie film has yet to appear. While the movie has acquired something of a cult following, it fizzled at the box office. Hanna-Barbera writer Ken Spears, who helped develop the cartoon show back in 1970, complained to TV Guide: "Our show was a flat-out comedy with adventures and so forth. The movie (had) an MTV kind of sensibility to it. (There was) no correlation between the cartoon from thirty years ago and what (was) on the screen." Michael Silberkleit had no idea what the producers would do; the film was only in its early planning stages when I spoke with him. At that time, he was very excited about licensing opportunities for the Josie characters, and he assured me: "We're not going to abandon Josie and The Pussycats."
Josie DVD

True to his word, Archie Comics has kept the group alive in one-shot series and digest sized compilations, despite the film's failure. Every now and then, a new Pussycats story will appear. In their most recent incarnation, the girls were rendered in the Japanese cartoon style known as Manga. Another Archie property, Sabrina, was revived as a Manga book in 2004 and has found new popularity. However, reader reaction to the new-look Josie has reportedly been mixed.

The girl's costume designs have definitely gotten more provocative in recent years; some readers have even complained about the expanse of skin on display. With a suggestive name like Pussycats, you wonder if at some point the company won't try to steer the strip in an R-rated direction? Anything's possible, of course, but Michael Silberkleit would definitely not be receptive to this approach:

The comic book business today is becoming more violent and more sexually explicit. We're . . . the only sane (company) in this whole field. The writers are writing for themselves now! It's the tail wagging the dog, and it's gonna catch up to them when some investigating Senator gets up and assails comic boos as terrible. It happened back in the 1950s. This is what I'm telling everybody, I say: "You guys weren't around then! I was, and you'd better watch it, because you're gonna put us all out of business!" I hope history doesn't repeat itself.

He was referring to the Comics Code, which was imposed on the comics industry in 1954. The Code came into being after a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham attacked comic books as subversive influences on children. This crackdown paralleled the McCarthy hearings and quiz show and payola scandals that held the attention of Congress during the Eisenhower years. The backlash hasn't come yet, but judging from the product that appears on comic stands today, it could happen any day now! Most younger editors ignore the Code, and just about anything goes: Nudity, sex, profanity and all manner of graphic bloodshed. Nothing would shock me more than to see these kinds of stories turn up in Archie Comics; the Silberkleit and Goldwater families, which still control the company, are extremely religious.

Given the international success of The Archies' music, the company has always been more keen on reviving that group. Michael Silberkleit spoke enthusiastically about a possible Archies touring band, as well as stage and screen treatments that emphasize music:

One of the things I'd love to do is revive The Archies singing group. I've had conversations with Ron Dante and Jeff Barry, but this has really never developed into anything . . . but I think that if somebody could figure out a way to put together a (new) group of people and call them The Archies, and have good music that kids are into today, I think it (would) have a good shot . . . we could promote it in our comic books, and I think kids who read our comics would certainly go listen. We (do) have an Archies Broadway play that we're working on, and I'm sure music's gonna come out of that.

This musical project is still on the burner (albeit the back burner). There's a slim chance that Jeff Barry or Ron Dante might still be involved with it. Personally, I think a "Josie" musical, with its greater camp potential, would be a surer bet for success on stage; but it makes sense that Archie Comics would prioritize its flagship characters. There's still a possiblity that Josie and The Pussycats could morph into a hit TV series, as did Sabrina, The Teenage Witch. I shudder, however, to think of the girls portrayed as Punk Rock sluts or Hip-Hop hoochies; that would be the most likely result of Hollywood attempts to modernize them.

Whatever happens, though, let's hope Josie, Valerie, Melody and their friends don't disappear from the scene altogether! From an historical point of view, this comic strip is too important. Believe it or not, Josie and The Pussycats really were the first high-profile female Rock group. Since they debuted in December of 1969, they've been an inspiration to girl musicians all over the world. Joan Jett, Sheryl Crow, Avril Lavigne, Madonna and any number of Rock 'n' Roll women owe a cultural debt to Josie. Just as Wonder Woman made paved a path for super-heroines in the 1940s, this hard-rocking redhead put music careers within the realm of possiblities for millions of little Gen X girls who loved playing guitar. The Pussycats simply must get another lease on life . . . they can't break up! Whatever would we do without them?

Josie DVD

Contact the editors of Archie Comics, 

and let them know what they need to do to make 
Josie and The Pussycats popular again!
Submit your comments online at:
http://www.archiecomics.com/talkback.html
Turner Home Entertainment will release the original 
Josie and The Pussycats cartoon series 
on DVD in September 2007.

3 comments:

DungeonDJ said...

I loved the cartoon as a child. Wasn't too big on the first movie remake. Yeah, the movie clothing definitely has lost a few stitches here and there. Rachael Leigh Cook sure does fill that halter on the DVD cover. BTW, You guys are mentioned in the latest post on my blog. Check it out:
http://themessagethemusic.blogspot.com

DungeonDJ said...

Duh, I gotta get my actresses straight. I meant Tara Reid. Loved her in "Van Wilder" and "The Big Lebowski". How'd I screw that one up? And, I didn't even have a Cactus Daiquiri. LOL:D

STUFFED ANIMAL said...

Well, then, you'd better stop by the bar on your way home so's I can mix one up for you! Thanks for the write-up, BTW.