Dark Horse is in archivist mode with this collection, presenting a series of early Archie-related strips that should be essential reading for any completist fans out there. What is more though there is plenty of interest here for those looking to get a sense of the period, namely 1940’s America.
But first a disclaimer: Growing up in Ireland, I was never familiar with Archie. Instead The Beano and The Dandy were the comedy strips I read as a kid, similar in tone as far as slapstick humor is concerned, as well as being relatively timeless. Archie and Jughead’s adventures in Riverdale were completely unknown to me until the unusual 90’s crossover featuring Frank Castle visiting the town on the hunt of a criminal who just happened to resemble America’s favorite teenage Everyman. This clash of worlds not only served as cross-promotion of the two franchises from Marvel and Archie Comics respectively – it also underlined the moral uprightness of Archie and his perpetual adolescence. The eponymous freckled teen is a bit of a scamp, but is generally a decent sort and Riverdale exists in an archetypal America Golden Age, free of corruption, violent crime or societal confusion.
When I eventually graduated to American superhero comics, Iron Man was a philandering love-rat, my first Superman comic featured a storyline that was broadly inspired by The Exorcist and The Uncanny X-Men looked like thugs. Archie with its vigilantly trademarked Dan DeCarlo cherubs would have been a relief. U.S. comics felt to my pre-teen self like a dark, ugly and very adult place.
End of interlude.
This third volume features Archie adventures that pre-date the arrival of Dan DeCarlo and so present-day fans will no doubt be surprised by the difference in art styles. However, there is much here that should be familiar. Archie Andrews is still torn between Betty and Veronica. Jughead is still wearing that odd hat. Betty and Veronica themselves sustain their unusual friendship, competing fiercely over Archie but remain otherwise the best of friends. They also, thanks to the art style, have interchangeable faces, a fact that one storyline draws direct attention to when they dress up as one another.
Actually it was the difference in appearance from the Dan DeCarlo Betty and Veronica that first caught me by surprise with this collection. While still aged 17 for the purposes of these stories, the two girls look positively vampish, with Veronica fond of long, flowing gowns and Betty opting for figure-hugging dresses. Despite the characters’ age, they resemble adults, their appearance possibly taking inspiration from the starlets of the day such as Veronica Lake, or Rita Hayworth. This begs the question why are two such beautiful young women mooning over Archie, whose indecisive flubbing over which of them he prefers threatens their own friendship. One adventure opens with the two girls attending a first aid class, with Veronica resorting to attempted strangulation!
“You bet, Miss Neill and we’ll start with this neat little bandage around the neck!”
“Hey! Take it Easy!”
Of course despite their losing their heads over the ordinary-looking Archie, the two girls are more than well-aware of their own physical charms when required. In one issue they decide to begin operating a dating service out of the Riverdale School, which draws the attention of two censorious school-masters. At first Betty and Veronica resort to dressing up as fusty dames to seduce the older men, but when that fails, produce photographic evidence indicating that the investigating teachers had made inappropriate advances. From solicitation to blackmail in a single issue – I am not so sure Riverdale really is the moral heartland Archie would have us believe.
But then that perception of Archie itself is a false one, rooted in the belief that comics were and are for kids. In actuality comics, or the funny pages to use the old expression, were more of a working class pursuit, so from the original stories by artist/creator Bob Montana there would have been a broader audience in mind than perhaps contemporary readers imagine. These early Archie comics are by no means salacious, but there are hints of a naughty subtext to certain scenes.
Less forgivable is the offhand racism occasioned by a story featuring Archie’s father Fred Andrews, whose embarrassment at being caught wearing a Zoot suit leads him to dump it in a trashcan. The punchline to the adventure is a black man seen courting his girlfriend wearing the discarded item of clothing. Fred’s embarrassment is rooted in his wearing a Zoot suit, which was commonly identified with lower class blacks. The strip lampoons this trend further by showing the ridiculed boyfriend character is happy to make off with a filthy suit taken from rubbish. It is a regrettable insight into the mores of the time.
The New York Times obituary for Archie Comics founder – and Comic Code proponent – John L. Goldwater, quotes him as claiming Archie Andrews was designed to be a response to Superman. While that did not stop Archie née MLJ Comics from inventing their own superheroes – The Shield and Black Hood appear on cover art featured in this volume – it is interesting to see Archie as a symbol of how America likes to see itself. The period of publication represented here was a grim one. War had shaken the confidence of ordinary citizens and there are frequent appeals for readers to buy bonds indicating its continuing presence in people’s minds. It was a difficult time. So Archie comics with its offhand tomfoolery, romantic complications and amusing misunderstandings must have come as a welcome distraction to readers.
That is why this comic has since become synonymous with an almost naive nostalgia – the stories were hopeful and light-hearted when so much about the world was dark and depressing, something which we have lost sight of. This collection provides a welcome insight into the hopes and idle dreams of 1940’s America shared by its readers whatever their age. The Dark Horse Archie Archives Volume Three includes the work of Curley Cole, Virginia Drury, Ed Goggin, Carl Hubbell, Bob Montana, Harry Sahle, Janice Valleau and Bill Vigoda.