The Best of Archie Comics

When I first saw the solicit for this title, I admit I didn’t pay it quite as much attention as I could have. Between the chronological archives Dark Horse has started and the hardcover collections by artist, there has been a glut of old Archie re-releases, with more coming every month. This one was a chunky 400-page paperback from Archie’s own publisher, though, and about the size of its Double Digests. Despite its rather uninspiring cover art (which remains a weakness), I decided to give it a shot.

It’s not *quite* a Best Of – the publisher is trying to give a historical overview of the titles the company put out, and thus you’ll see stuff here of lower quality that nevertheless gives a broader look than just a bunch of Archie love triangle stories – but it’s actually a very decent effort. The stories all have as many credits as they were able to locate, and a short paragraph either saying why they felt this story deserved to be in the book, why this ‘sort’ of story typifies Archie and his friends, or the occasional celebrity blurb. Each decade gets about 50 pages, ending with the Life With Archie years that we’re getting right now.

As for the stories I mentioned above, we see many of the other titles Archie put out over the years that weren’t Archie. Some are famous enough to stand on their own – it’s nice to see the first Sabrina comic here, as well as a couple of Josie and the Pussycats stories (though I’d like to have seen something from the early, pre-band Josie years). And then there’s things like Wilbur, Ginger, and That Wilkin Boy, all of which try unsuccessfully to duplicate Archie’s formula with writing and characters that simply aren’t as good. Still, it’s interesting to see them here (we even get a glimpse of the infamous Super Duck) as a sign that it wasn’t just recently that Archie would try lots of different ideas to see what stuck – they were *always* doing it.

As for the Archie stories themselves, they are solid and readable – this is more of the Best Of that the title led me to expect. In particular, every time you see Bob Bolling credited you are in for a real treat. He’s got 3 stories in here, two featuring his specialty – The ‘Little Archie’ Archie as a kid strips – and they’re all brilliant, with two of them dredging out memories in me from when I was a small boy reading digests myself. Seeing Little Archie drag Betty through Riverdale’s worst outgrowth in order to put off her obsession with him – only to have it backfire and end in one of the most heartwarming moments in the history of the series – is beautiful. Likewise, one of his stories with adult Archie shows Betty misunderstanding seeing Archie and Veronica after he was just on a date with her, and spiraling into a blue funk. Archie’s solution requires a major deus ex machina, but we don’t care, as it’s simply so sweet. There needs to be a Bolling collection asap.

We do get a few stories we’ve seen reprinted many times over the last two years – Archie’s debut, the first appearance of Veronica, that Reggie with the football game – but that’s simply as the archive has skewed heavily towards the 40s and debuts, and you can’t really leave them out. But there’s other fascinating stuff here – some Katy Keene and Archie pin-ups, a few Jughead Dipsy Doodles, and of course Archie in the early 1970s taking the time to explain his growing media empire to the reader. We also get a few reminders that it wasn’t just experiments with other characters or series that didn’t work out for Archie. Witness Jughead’s pin that makes him irresistible to women, or ‘The New Archies’ trying to split the difference between Archie and Little Archie, or even things like Alexandra from Josie having magical powers – which, naturally, she uses for evil.

The book ends with a few stories that are right up to date. We get a Life With Archie from the current series, the only comic in here longer than 6 pages (by design, the editors admit), as well as a very funny Reggie comic about an anthropomorphic personification of his ego – and you can imagine how big it is. Kevin Keller even gets mentioned as a new breakout character – although his sexuality is not mentioned, FYI. And lastly, we see they’re still trying new things – the very last strips are one-page gag comics featuring Jinx, a teenage version of the bratty L’il Jinx from decades earlier.

There’s things I wish we’d seen in here – I’d have liked a few of the more serious 70s-style political stories, and I’d have loved one of the old ‘Betty Cooper is insane’ stories that the web has highlighted. But really, you can’t do a best of for Archie in only 400 pages – there’s simply too much. What you can do is give a sampler and show that Archie has, for the past 70 years, been doing what it’s doing today – writing fun, likeable stories and then finding ways to market them in any way possible. And if that defines Archie as a business more than a character, that’s not to say that the character is weak. You’d never have lasted 70 years without people loving Archie and his friends, and this collection shows why everyone loves them. As a history, it’s fine, and I would not mind seeing a second volume in a similar vein.

You can leave out That Wilkin Boy next time, though.

Archie Firsts

Created by Bob Montana. Art by Bob Montana and George Frese, Story by Vic Bloom (the first story) and other unknown writers. Initially published by MLJ Magazines, later Archie Comics. This edition released by Dark Horse.

I will admit I was buying this volume out of more pure nostalgia and a desire to support an archive collection of Archie Comics more than an expectation that it would be any good. I’ve read the first Archie story from Pep Comics before, and it struck me then as it does now – an aggressively mediocre take on Andy Hardy that is very reliant on ridiculous sight gags. Imagine my surprise, then, when I not only got a lot out of this collection of the initial appearances of the main cast of Archie, but also found myself laughing hard several times.

I laughed least at the Archie part of the collection, though. While I do appreciate Bob Montana’s creation of the Archie characters, and his making of the template that would follow, his 1940s art grates on me a great deal. Jughead in particular is almost ridiculously laughable, looking about 55 years old in his initial appearances, making one wonder how he possibly can be in high school, unless he stayed back about 19 grades. (Indeed, one of the initial gags has Archie making fun of Jughead’s intelligence. This wouldn’t last long – by the Jughead comic later in the collection, he’s already tops in his class.) The two best stories in this part of the collection were a Christmas story where Archie and Jughead get invited (separately) to a party by twin girls, and mistaken identity gags follow. There’s then a Jughead-focused story where he’s dragooned into being a hockey goalie, and after getting clobbered has a surreal fantasy where Archie appears in every aspect of his life to ruin it.

I do note that Jughead, despite going on about how he hates dames, seems to be involved with women as much as Archie does in these comics. One of the twins describes his elderly looks in these early Archies as ‘so manly!’, and in his hockey-induced dream sequence, he’s actually on a boat trying to serenade a beautiful girl (who turns out to be Archie, but I’ll leave that for psychologists). Indeed, the ad for Jughead’s title that’s seen later in the volume shows his indifference to many and varied varieties of girls (including Betty), all of whom seem fascinated by HIM. For those who think the ‘Jughead likes girls after all’ plot was just brought out in the late 80s, think again.

Jughead’s title itself is pretty good – he’s drawn here by George Frese, and has evolved so that he merely looks in his mid-30s rather than the elderly Jughead of Bob Montana. One of the odder things here is seeing not one but two weird old guys who give Jughead super secret formulas – both related to football. We also meet an early version of Moose Mason, who is dating Lottie rather than Midge, but is still just as jealous of anyone who even looks at her – especially Jughead, who is even MORE suspicious as he doesn’t like girls. (Again, as in the Archie title, Jughead’s hatred of girls is made light of several times. We even see him trying to instruct his cousin Soupy in the art of being gallant to a lady.) This was a decent title, but I noted that Jughead’s luck seemed far worse than it does in later titles from the 70s and 80s – here he’s very much a hard-luck victim much of the time.

As for the Reggie title, I’ve always felt he worked better as a foil than as the star, so wasn’t as bowled over. Still, they did a good job of keeping things varied here, with a few stories about his reputation for pranks and practical jokes. Most of the issue, though, tended to focus on Reggie’s colossal ego, and how it keeps getting him into hot water. I did note that out of all the issues we see here, Reggie’s comes closest to looking like the ‘modern’ style – Reggie hasn’t changed much over the years, barring that first issue of Jackpot comics where he seems to be called Scotty).

The highlight of the book for me was the Betty and Veronica issue. First off, George Frese’s art is at his best here, showing the girls looking very attractive long before Dan DeCarlo came along to streamline their design. The girls’ friendship is shown very well, with a great story that has Betty sleeping over at Veronica’s house, and realizing that the money to buy whatever you want does not translate into a happy and loving home. (It also has Betty and Veronica in sexy nightwear, for those who like that sort of thing.) Veronica’s persona is somewhat similar to her modern one, but Betty is quite different – in fact, a few of these titles could have been rewritten as Melody from the Pussycats without changing much of anything. Betty has a very perky ‘dumb blonde’ attitude throughout here, which is a change from her modern persona, but also hilarious in its own way.

This does not mean that those who hunt through comics looking for ‘Betty Cooper Is Insane’ stories (see for details) are out of luck, for we have here The Rainmaker, easily my favorite story of the collection. The premise has Betty trying to get a date with Archie, but she’s asked to pick up her father’s shotgun from the shop before she does. She then decides she can ‘play the jealousy angle’ by threatening to murder him if he doesn’t go out with her. He points out, however, that this time it’s not Veronica that’s in the way, but his father – it’s a nice day, so he has to clean out the garage. This prompts Betty to try to force rain by shooting dry ice into the air with her father’s shotgun. The whole story has to be seen to be believed, and is worth the price alone.

All in all, this is a good example of early Archie stories, and despite some flaws shows us why the series is still going even after 70 years. Slapstick comedy, misunderstandings, likeable characters, and sex appeal. But mostly the comedy. Any comics fan, especially if they grew up with Archie, would like this as a Christmas gift. And it’s apparently the start of a series; Dark Horse will put out Archie Archives Volume 1, with more Bob Montana stories from 1941 and 1942, in April 2011.