25 September 2011

Vintage Archie

Archie by Bob Montana

Archie: The Raunchy Years!
Pointy Breasts, Snarky Humor
and The Genius of Bob Montana
An AndruCharlz Production
Produced by AndruCharlz

Additonal Production and Remix by Don Charles Hampton
Like many of you, when I was growing up during the 1960s and '70s, Archie Andrews and company were constant companions. The comic books, the TV shows, the records, the occasional newspaper comic strip . . . I read, heard, and saw it all. Archie Andrews, the girl-crazy, happy-go-lucky, All-American kid with crosshatches in his hair . . . Jughead Jones, the wry, eccentric hamburger gourmand who had better things to do than chase girls . . . Reggie Mantle, the egotistical schemer whose main goal in life seemed to be to make things rough for Archie. He especially wanted to steal Arch's current girlfriend: Veronica Lodge, snobbish, spoiled, rich, gorgeous and proud of it! Then there was Betty Cooper, the blonde, pony-tailed semi-tomboy who resented being in Veronica's shadow, along with Big Moose, Dilton Doily, Pop Tate and all the other denizens of Riverdale. For better or worse, I knew them far better than I knew my real-life neighbors and friends.

Of course, in the Archie comics that I read, the humor was clean, wholesome and family-friendly, with precious few prickles or nettles to spoil the good vibes. I knew that "Archie" started ‘way back in 1941, but I just naturally assumed that Riverdale had always been that clean and that calm . . . after all, hardly anything changes in comic-dom!

Archie and Betty

But that was before I read Archie: The Complete Daily Newspaper Comics, 1946-1948. This huge, hardback collection, published by the Library of American Comics and IDW Publishers of New York, reprints the initial two-year run of Archie newspaper comic strips. Wow! It's like I climbed into the back seat of Archie’s jalopy "Old Bess" and, instead of the slow ride I expected, found myself careening down the highway at nearly 100 miles an hour!

All of a sudden, Archie became a wild-eyed speed demon, maniacally laughing and whooping as he held both feet down on the gas pedal! Slow the @##%~ down, Arch!!! Didn’t we pass Betty and Veronica back there? Man! When did they start looking like that? Talk about a couple of hot numbers . . . where's the seat belt? Say what? There's no seat belt??? Whoooooa . . . .

OK. The ride's over now! Let me calm down, take a few deep breaths, and reflect.

Seriously, these are not your father's Archie comic strips! Well, maybe they would be your father’s (or grandfather’s), but they’re not the ones you're used to. To be sure, most of these early storylines are the same ones that would keep popping up in years to come: Archie inviting both Betty and Veronica to the prom and trying to get Jughead to help him wiggle out of it; Archie trying his hand at golf, or football, or hockey, or whatever sport artist Bob Montana decided to make him stumble through; the gang getting chills and taking spills in a "haunted house"; Archie mistakenly asking witchy ol' Miss Grundy to the school dance; the boys at summer camp, trying to crash the all-girls camp next door . . . these plots and others would be laundered, wrung out, dried off and re-used over and over.

So what's different about these 1946-48 strips? Plenty! First, there's the sheer, unrestrained energy of these comics. Forget about 3-D: With no such gimmicks, the characters seem to jump through the panels and off the pages, tiring you out just by looking at them! At times, they remind me of "The Boy Friends," an obscure but energetic film short series from the Hal Roach laugh factory. The pure slapstick in these strips rivals anything Al Capp drew in his "Li'l Abner" prime, or any of Maggie's dish-throwing tantrums in "Bringing Up Father." (As quieter, more sophisticated strips like "Peanuts" gained prominence in later years, unhinged antics in the funny pages largely disappeared, and that's quite a loss! But I digress.)

Along with the slapstick, the humor in general is sharper, more pointed, even snarkier, than the later Archie comics. It’s the kind of humor you'd see decades later in teen comedies like Meatballs (which could've lifted its story straight from the 1947 summer camp sequence in this collection). While still basically a decent boy, Archie Andrews is wilder and much more of a smart ass; his occasional asides to readers remind me of Alfred E. Newman's "aphorisms" on the Mad Magazine contents page. Jughead Jones is also more aggressive, cynical and openly misogynist than he would be later on; he serves as a voice of reason, countering Archie's wild impulsiveness. Reggie, too, comes across much nastier than we'd see him act in the 1960s and '70s; his treatment of Archie in such storylines as the 1946 club initiation borders on sadistic!

All three boys are somewhat less handsome than they appear today, too. Aw, who am I kidding? Let me lay it right on the line for you: Frankly, Juggie is uglier than homemade sin, and one glance at Archiekins’ buck-toothed puss makes you wonder what in the world Betty and Veronica ever saw in him! With few exceptions, Riverdale High’s male student body during the 1940s was a scrawny, knock-kneed, dorky-looking bunch. Yipe! It doesn’t take a genius to guess what Bob Montana’s sexual preference was!

Veronica and Jughead

And what about those girls? Or should I say, those honeys! Yowsah! In the very first strip, which introduces Veronica Lodge as the new girl in school, the Dixie-born débutante is, except for her jet black hair, the spittin' image of the wartime starlet who inspired her character: Veronica Lake. And that's just above the neck. Both she and Betty Cooper look more like Hollywood glamour girls than the teenagers they're supposed to be. Believe you me, no chick I knew in high school (not even the ones that developed early and had growth spurts) looked like these two!

Betty By Bob Montana

Rendered tall, full-figured and voluptuous (dig those pointed little breasts!), Archie’s girls circa 1948 are rich eye candy for admirers of the female form, especially when they wear swimsuits (or not . . . wait ‘til you see the discreet nude scenes Bob Montana sneaked past the censors!  Sometimes, even the boys showed more skin than was common in '40s media).  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself drooling at the sight of Ronnie in her black ballet leotard (ooooooweee!) or her leggy drum majorette uniform. Montana got away with sneaking other absolute babes into his strips as well, and most of them were supposed to be teenagers, too.

Archie Nude Shower Scene

If you can tear your eyes away from Ronnie and Betty for a while, you’ll meet many unfamiliar characters that probably didn't make it into the comic books: Just to name three, zoot suit-wearing mechanical farmer Bobby Zocks, Hooky Hogan, a notorious hooky-player from school, and Streaky, a rival for Reggie in the bad-guy department. You’ll also see the gang interacting with adults a lot more (Zocks being one example), and grown-up foibles are fully on display. Turns out Archie’s dad thinks he can dance the Jitterbug, Mr. Weatherbee has an eye for the ladies, and you won’t believe how saucy Miss Grundy gets in some panels! Could it be teacher is hot for some red-headed schoolboy lovin’? Back in ’46, Bob Montana wasn’t beyond leaving that impression!

Most of all, this book is a tribute to Montana (real name: Robert William Coleman), who’s been overshadowed by Dan DeCarlo and other popular “Archie” artists who succeeded him. Despite the world-wide fame of his creations, he’s never quite gotten the credit he deserves. Publisher John Goldwater may have provided much inspiration, and scripters like Vic Bloom were always on hand to help out, but it was Bob Montana who designed and sculpted the world of Riverdale. It looks rather generic nowadays, but in the late ‘40s, he made that world as vivid as Al Capp's Dogpatch. It's only recently that the goateed cartoonist, who died in 1975, was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame for comic strip artists. The honor was long overdue.

Bob Montana
BOB MONTANA

Though Montana was long past his own teens when he helped bring Archie to life, it's clear from these early strips that he had near total recall of those years. Pushing the boundaries of what was then acceptable in the funny papers, he had the courage to show teenagers as they really were: Devilish, conniving, lazy, petty, sarcastic and even sexually precocious. (To paraphrase screen legend Mae West: When Betty was good, she was very good. Ah, but when she was bad, as shown in a 1946 football-themed story, she was even better!) He’d almost certainly enjoy the raunchy gags found in 21st century teen fare, because they really aren’t that different from what he did 65 years ago.

Pep Comics

For those who don't mind a little text with your pictures, the book contains some fine essays detailing the early history of Archie: The wartime comic books and the 1940s radio series as well as the newspaper strips. They contain some with surprising insights, like the fact that the series' slapstick sequences were informed by Bob Montana’s firsthand knowledge of stage comedy: His mom and dad had been vaudevillians.

Despite the initial shock, I'm glad I took this wild ride into the early history of Archie Andrews and Riverdale. Once you've taken it, I think you’ll be glad, too; and if you haven’t bought an Archie comic book for a while, you might even find yourself becoming a fan again! Wouldja believe an openly Gay kid has joined the gang? And did you know there’s now a magazine that envisions Archie’s future life as husband to Veronica . . . and Betty? I ain't makin' this up! Could it be a little bit of that edgy Bob Montana spirit is creeping back into the strip? See for yourself. Now, where did I put my Archie Comics Double Digest . . . ?

For a less expensive trip into Archie Comics past, grab hold of the new 400 page all-color paperback volume The Best Of Archie Comics, with 70 years’ worth of stories featuring The Archies, Josie and The Pussycats, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Li’l Jinx, That Wilkin Boy, Katy Keene and many other vintage characters.

Best Of Archie Comics

All images © copyright Archie Comic Publications.