Archie: The Best of Dan DeCarlo Volume 2

Review by KC Carlson

Okay, this is more like it!

I enjoyed the first volume of IDW’s new hardcover book series The Best of Dan DeCarlo, but I felt that the the overall scope of the volume was somewhat limited, since virtually all the stories were originally from Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica. While DeCarlo was best known for illustrating the tempestuous teen girls, the volume just didn’t seem wide-ranging enough for something called The Best of Dan DeCarlo.

Volume Two broadens the scope, featuring stories originally from Jughead, Laugh, Archie’s Pals ‘n’ Gals, Everything’s Archie, and even Archie’s Madhouse (an early Sabrina story!). There are still plenty of stories about “the girls”, but the rest of the cast — including Jughead, Reggie, Moose, and Midge — get their share of the spotlight as well. Plus, there’s a wider range of publishing time represented in this volume — stories range from being first published in 1957 to 1971 — so you can see how DeCarlo’s art style subtly changes over the course of 14 years.

Case in point, take the first story in this volume. The wry Jughead scam “Camera Shy” was first printed in 1957, when the Archie “house style” was still a four-tiered page, featuring eight panels per page. This makes the art more claustrophobic, and very few of the panels in this story are more than just talking heads. Later that year, Archie switched to the three-tier layout, offering fewer total panels, but giving artists more room for bigger in-panel action. That was something that artists like DeCarlo and Harry Lucey used to their full advantage in the crazy, wild Archie stories of the late 50s and early 60s, where punches were frequently thrown, both girls and boys alike were swept off their feet with unexpected passionate kisses, and when Big Moose appeared, crumpled bodies flew across panels!

DeCarlo also used the larger panels to show off his excellent fashion skills. DeCarlo took of-the-moment fashion very seriously in his work, using current teen magazines for reference and getting tips from his son’s girlfriends and his wife, Josie. Fans of DeCarlo’s fashion pages from this era note that Josie’s name would pop up from time to time whenever fans were credited for providing outfit ideas. And while DeCarlo obviously put a lot into clothing for the girls, he didn’t scrimp on the boys — check out Jughead’s wild shirt in “The Holdout” in this book.

One of my favorite Archie stories of all time is in this volume: the Betty and Veronica story “Small Fry”. Originally published in 1962, this was a big era for absurdist stories in many of the Archie titles. (Many of them featured monsters, aliens, and other sci-fi ideas that were a big part of the pop culture of the era.) In “Small Fry”, Betty discovers that Veronica is starting to shrink (in a great bit of subtle self-parody, as the girls compare back-to-back — the joke being that DeCarlo normally drew the characters identically, except for differing hair styles and color). There are a lot of really stinging jokes and humiliation at Ronnie’s expense — Pop Tate puts her in a child’s highchair at one point — until she shrinks to about the size of an olive. I can’t give away the the bizarre ending (nor its clever twist), but I can offer a clue: It involves Jughead doing something he normally does.

By the way, “Small Fry” is definitely a story that benefits from the larger panels of the three-tiered format. With all the long shots needed for height comparisons, I doubt this story could have been told effectively with the compressed panels of a four-tier layout.

“Small Fry” is written by the great — and largely unsung — Frank Doyle, to whom this volume is dedicated. (Doyle wrote the majority of the credited stories here.) As the head writer for Archie Comics, Doyle wrote over 10,000 stories for Archie Comics over a long career (he passed away in 1996 at the age of 78). Doyle worked a lot with DeCarlo, as the main writer for both Betty and Veronica and the main Archie title. According to DeCarlo, Doyle wrote all of the early Josie comics (She’s Josie-era) and many of the later Josie and the Pussycats stories, but not any of the transitional ones. Doyle also wrote many of the longer, adventure-themed titles (such as Life With Archie), as well as plenty of the stories in the mid-60s featuring the Archie characters as superheroes (Pureheart, Captain Hero, Superteen).

Doyle’s scripts were quick and witty, and they generally dealt with hysterically funny absurd situations (like amnesia, in “Down Memory Lane”), snappy patter (“The Boat Builder”), or even sweet stories like “Book Mark” where Archie cleverly derails a Veronica scheme to make Betty feel bad. While his dialogue was amazingly quick and tight, Doyle also excelled in many excellent “silent” stories (no dialogue) in slapstick classics like “Sound Off”. And check out “The Cave Man Caper” for what may be the single funniest one-page Moose joke (brilliantly drawn by DeCarlo) in Archie comics (page 3). I suspect that some of the earlier “writer unknown” stories in this volume are actually written by Doyle — the schemes within seem too clever not to have been dreamed up by him.

This volume also includes one of the very rare early Archie non-continuity (aka: What-If?-type) stories — “A Summer Prayer for Peace”. It’s not only a topical anti-war story; it’s also a link to one of the popular songs from the real-life Archie record album at the time. Originally published in 1971, written by Dick Malmgrem and illustrated by DeCarlo and inker Rudy Lapick, the shocking story features Archie, Reggie, and Jughead being drafted into the Army and prepared to ship out for training for the war in Vietnam (although this is not specifically stated). The bulk of the story is actually a political debate between the regulars and a unfortunately stereotyped drop-out/draft-dodger character. Unfortunately, the story hasn’t aged well, being slangy and a bit heavy-handed, but it’s a fascinating curio of the times, and very interesting from a publishing company that historically didn’t stray far from the basic Archie formula.

Also new to this volume are some classic DeCarlo pinups and Fashion Pages, which were sorrily lacking from Volume One. There aren’t nearly enough, but that may be because of IDW’s insistence of shooting from the original art, for the highest quality possible. Perhaps they just don’t have that many to choose from. If you have original Archie artwork from this era (late 50s to early 70s) and would be willing to loan or scan it for future volumes, please contact IDW and offer your assistance. After seeing so much Archie original artwork being sold at conventions over the years for practically nothing, I suspect that, because it was so affordable and outside normal original art collecting circles, there’s a lot of it in the hands of people that no one knows how to contact. (It was often so cheap that even some small children may have some!) You can help keep these volumes looking great!

I do have to note one original art mishap in this volume. The story “Sheer Nonsense” has a small number of lettering problems (misspelled words and broken or missing lettering) that were not caught prior to publication in this new volume. I suspect that these were corrected on the original art boards, with overlays which were glued on with rubber cement. Unfortunately, that adhesive doesn’t stand up to time, so the lettering corrections probably fell off these 50-60-year-old originals and were lost.

Small mishaps aside, Archie: The Best of Dan DeCarlo Volume 2 is an excellent collection of vintage Archie stories, showcasing one of the greatest comic book artists ever at the peak of his career. (And also, as an unadvertised bonus, one of their greatest writers in Frank Doyle!) These are handsome hardcover volumes, printed on slick, bright paper with vibrant coloring (completely recolored from the originals — but following the original’s style). Between the high-quality stories and the exceptional production values, these moderately-priced volumes are excellent for beginning a collection of what many aficionados feel is the classic Archie material. In addition to the previous DeCarlo volume, also available is The Best of Stan Goldberg, which features some originally unpublished fashion pages, as well as his original pencil drawings for the best-selling Archie Marries… series. Subsequent volumes featuring other great Archie artists are also planned.

4 Responses to “Archie: The Best of Dan DeCarlo Volume 2”

  1. Grant Says:

    This looks good. I’m not a big Archie fan but I am a big DeCarlo fan. I wonder if they’ll be doing a volume on his “She’s Josie” stuff.

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