Review by Win Wiacek
When you mention comics in conversation most people’s thoughts turn to buff men in garish tights hitting each other and lobbing trees or cars about, and indeed that has been the prolific norm of late. Throughout the years though, other forms and genres have waxed and waned. One that has held its ground over the years 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 comics publisher whose name was formed from the initials of the founders Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John L. Goldwater. Although successful enough with their common blend of costumed heroes and two-fisted adventure strips, the publishers felt they were missing some markets (most particularly girls) with their thriller fare. So, taking a lead from the phenomenally popular teen movies series Andy Hardy, Goldwater developed a wholesome ordinary hero concept, tasking writer Vic Bloom and artist Bob Montana with the job of making it work. In December 1941 the world was introduced to a big-eared, gap-toothed, freckle-faced, red-headed goof showing off to the pretty blonde girl moving in next door. Betty Cooper and Archie’s unconventional best friend Jughead Jones debuted in that first story as did the small-town utopia of Riverdale.
The strip was an instant hit and by the winter of 1942 had graduated to its own title, which was the MLJ’s first non-anthology publication, and with it began the slow transformation of the entire company. With the introduction of rich, black-haired Veronica Lodge, all the pieces were in play for the creation of a phenomenon. In May 1946 the kid had taken over, so the company renamed itself Archie Comics, also phasing out its heroic characters, becoming to all intents and purposes a family comedy publisher.
Archie is a well-meaning boy but lacks common sense. Betty is the pretty, sensible girl next door, with all that entails, and she loves Archie. Veronica is rich, exotic and glamorous; she only settles for our boy if there’s nobody better around. She might actually love him, though. Archie can’t decide who he wants.
This wholesome eternal triangle has been the basis of more than seventy years of charming, raucous, gentle, frenetic, chiding and even heart-rending comedy ranging from surreal wit to frantic slapstick, as the kids and an increasing cast of friends grew into an American institution. So pervasive is the imagery that it’s a part of Americana itself. Adapting seamlessly to every trend and fad of the growing youth culture, the battalion of writers and artists who’ve crafted the stories over the decades have made the “everyteen” characters of Riverdale a benchmark for youth and a visual barometer of growing up.
It means the vast and distinctive back-catalogue is therefore ideal for compilations, as in this series of decade by decade commemorations. This first volume covers the formative work from the 1940s with a criminally insufficient 128 pages of glorious fun and frolicsome mayhem, beginning with that initial appearance, the first meeting with Veronica, plus fourteen other gems, cover reproductions, feature pages and even an introduction from long-time fan Stephen King. Credits, particularly for writers, are hard to determine, but Montana drew the first appearance and drew the introduction of several pivotal characters.
So successful was this genre innovation that within two years every comic publisher had Archie clones and knock-offs, but it’s clear from reading this volume that the original was, and still is, the best. Accept no substitutes.
All stories are also featured in The Best of Archie Americana: The Golden Age.