- Posted by Johanna on May 21, 2006 at 8:31 am
- Category: Archie Comics
- PUBLISHER: Archie Comics; $9.95 - $10.95 US
When talking about history, it’s popular to quote “those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” If Archie learned from his history, though, we wouldn’t have five decades’ worth of comics to enjoy. The eternal triangle of Betty, Archie, and Veronica has altered slightly over the years as the characters became more rounded, but we know he’s never going to pick just one; the variety’s too interesting.
The first volume in this series, Best of the Forties, sets out how it all began. As expected, a large part of the material is made up of first appearances of the major characters. Watching the creators experiment is fascinating, since they had no idea they were laying the groundwork for decades to come. For example, there are two contradictory stories covering Veronica’s first appearance in Riverdale, and when we first see Archie, he wants us to call him “Chick”.
In his very first appearance, Archie reminds me more of Dennis the Menace than “America’s favorite teenager”. There’s a lot of slapstick, and the characters seem younger than the versions I know. I can certainly see why this emphatically non-superhero concept caught on during wartime. The lovable scamp has a long tradition, and the emphasis on events like the hometown carnival and neighborhood fence-walking would remind folks of “what we’re fighting for”.
The chronological ordering helps the reader keep up with the development of the series, and the notes in the Table of Contents point out the important happenings. I noticed that the class distinction between Veronica and Archie (and all his other friends) is much more pronounced early on, due to her money and status as a society sub-deb. Some of the early stories shown here don’t have much Betty at all, until we get to the classic humor setups, like Archie trying to both date Veronica and work at the restaurant where they’re eating in order to pay for the meal, or Archie trying to have dates with Betty and Veronica separately at the same time in the same theater.
The second half of the book, as the characters and situations have firmed up, gets more into trends of the time. Even in the earlier stories, it’s obvious that certain ways of life were much different, like dancing to an orchestra at dinner or hazing to get into a secret high school club. The later stories in this volume deal with events like a jitterbug contest (in a tale full of period slang) or something called a “patch hop”. Perhaps because the characters were relatively fresh and the situations basic and direct, I find these stories the funniest.
Given the age of the content, it’s understandable that the art isn’t perfect. Some of the lines are faint, as though they’ve worn away over time (or more likely, lost in reproduction). The coloring is garish on the thick white paper, and the choices! A lavender house with a pink door. Orange floors, yellow skies, and grass green walls. I’m guessing all these bright pastels had to be the original tones, given how unlikely it would be for a modern colorist to choose anything this discordant. Hopefully, they looked much different on softer pulp paper with cheaper printing.
The sequel, Best of the Forties Book Two, contains stories reprinted from Laugh Comics, the Archie title that concentrated on slapstick misunderstandings and wacky hijinks. The line quality has been greatly improved, due to the discovery of original black-and-white art copies from the era, but the book as a whole is a bit shallower than the first volume. Due to the emphasis on just one type of story, it’s like watching a marathon of old sitcoms.
Best of the Fifties brings back the variety, as the series hits its peak. That’s appropriate, since the 50s was also when teenage life first began to come into its own. This book contains sock hops, jingle contests, hula hoops, beatniks, plate spinning, and best of all, the characters drawn in the attractive house style established by Dan DeCarlo. The followup, Best of the Fifties Book Two, concentrates on the latter half of that decade, with most of the stories dating from 1956 or later. Although a few are fad-centered, showing game shows, Davey Crockett coonskin caps, fashions of the time, and family coats of arms, most deal with the basic love triangle storyline.
There’s an interesting story where Veronica dyes her hair blonde to keep Archie’s attention from Betty, but the standouts for me are the ones that play with gender roles. In the first, Jughead puts on women’s clothes while trying to strike a blow for equality, since a policeman won’t let him wear shorts in a public park, but the women get away with abbreviated sunsuits. Another has Betty playing on the boys’ baseball team, even though it turns out badly.
The Sixties volume is even more about the trends. Whether fashion, music, or surfing, it’s all in this volume. The artists did a great job of keeping the language, hair, and clothes timely, even for the guys, which make the stories even more enjoyable.
By the Seventies, though, things are getting a little too silly. It’s one thing for the gang to be mistaken for troublemakers just because they’re teenagers (as happens in one of the later stories in the Sixties volume), but it doesn’t ring as true for Archie to be seriously trying to stage a sit-in. The justification for bubblegum music is very in touch with the period, though. It’s a bit odd reading about Betty and Veronica learning about how much has changed since women’s lib followed up by a trifling piece on CB radios, but I suppose that accurately captures the schizophrenia of the decade.
In the Eighties, the kids appear almost as exhausted as their true ages would suggest. They take part in trends like roller disco or braiding cornrows, but the stories are about the negative aspects instead of fun exploration. Veronica can’t do anything because of her fancy hairstyle, or the Archies need to update their style in order to get on MTV, or the gang ends up fighting over a trivia game, or in the weirdest one, Archie’s worried that Jughead’s punk experimentation means he’s somehow in danger. I can’t even imagine what a Nineties volume might look like, although I’m sure grunge would play a big part.
Once the teenage humor genre was so popular that every publisher had a title or four. Now Archie is the only one still publishing, as the longest-running best-known American non-superhero comic book. It’s the only comic many kids see, since the digest volumes have maintained grocery store checkout counter sales slots. it’s historically interesting to look at how the characters have changed over the years, and how they haven’t.
The introduction to Best of the Forties states that “Archie and his peers have always remained contemporary to the times in which their stories were published, always sporting the latest fashions, verbalizing with the most current teenage slang, and participating in the trendiest pastimes.” While I believe that’s the attempt, it’s also frequently said that you know a fad is truly dead when it shows up in an Archie comic.
However, the core appeal of the characters is timeless; it’s the desire for a simpler life. Stories about the dangers of drugs, for example, appear elsewhere, far from these soda-shop-set pages. As the lives of modern-day kids become ever more dangerous, it can be a welcome escape to read about a mythical place where the biggest threat is getting beat up by Moose because he thinks you’re trying to make time with his girl and the most life-altering choice is what to wear to the school dance.
These books aren’t necessarily the best Archie stories of all, since they were selected to give overviews of the time period as well as the series, but they’re enjoyable rambles through pop culture, hosted by one of the most recognizable examples himself.
The biggest flaw in these books is the lack of information about the writers and artists. According to Don Markstein’s Toonopedia:
“The impetus for the creation of Archie was a thought on the part of John L. Goldwater (the “J” of MLJ Comics) that a character modeled after Mickey Rooney’s film persona might be worth doing. For the idea of blatantly ripping off a bunch of movies, Goldwater is officially credited with the creation of the Riverdale melange — but the early stories that turned Goldwater’s “idea” into characters with names and personalities were written by Vic Bloom and drawn by Bob Montana.”
The only creator credited on the cover of the first volume is Stephen King, who wrote the foreword. There’s a short list of creators included in the introduction, but if the stories weren’t signed as part of the art, there’s no individual credits given for each tale. Later volumes have even less information, although the more recent books in this series do add a credit line stating that the character likenesses were created by Bob Montana. This lack of important historical information prevents the volumes from being the best they could be. (Thankfully, this was finally corrected in Best of the Eighties Volume 2, released November 2010.)