By Stuart Fischer
When one thinks of the comic book character Archie, one envisions a bright-eyed teenager who has a constant smile on his face, as if he does not have a care in the world. That might be true of this wonderful fictional character, but the company behind him is a hard-working, innovative force: Archie Comic Publications.
Founded in 1939 by Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit, and John L. Goldwater, the name of the company was first MLJ Publications. It was changed a few years later to Archie Comic Publications as a salute to the character that became its greatest success.
MLJ began publishing various titles during the beginning of the comic book industry, most of them humor, although there were also a few adventure series. The company’s first comic was Blue Ribbon Comics, published in November 1939, followed shortly by Pep Comics, which began in January 1940 and introduced The Shield, a patriotic hero who resembled Marvel’s Captain America, who started appearing one year later.
In Pep Comics issue no. 22, published in December 1941, Archie Andrews made his first appearance. The world would never be the same.Created by Goldwater—who was the publisher and editor of MLJ at the time—and written and drawn by Vic Bloom and Bob Montana, respectively, Archie drew upon Goldwater’s own early life experiences and the personalities of people he had known. The resulting character seemed to glide through life without taking it too seriously. Goldwater also helped create a large cast of supporting characters, whose stories took place in the suburb of Riverdale, which is filled with ordinary folks who—at least most of the time—mingle well.
Archie’s creators told all manner of comic book stories sprinkled with comedic situations. In addition to Archie, the cast has long included Jughead Jones, Archie’s best friend, who tends to be a bit slow on the draw, but can always be counted on as a loyal pal; Veronica Lodge, the beautiful girl next door who wants to be Archie’s significant other; Betty Cooper, who is a little more down-to-earth than Veronica, and who always has her eye on Archie; Reggie Mantle, an egotistical pretty boy, who is a competitor of Archie’s at most things, but will never be as popular due to his arrogance; and others who have been introduced over the years.
The comic book revolves around the gang’s zany misadventures, but their exploits seem very down-to-earth since they are a reflection of America’s youth: Archie and the gang are often coping with school and parents, but they also deal with peer group pressure and interpersonal differences. Still, the characters always come around at the end.
In more recent years, Archie Comics has attempted to introduce modern, and even post-modern, sensibilities in order to increase the brand’s appeal among contemporary audiences. Life with Archie, which debuted in 2010, gave readers a glimpse into Archie and his friends’ lives post-high school and college, and this July and August, the last two issues of the series, Life with Archie nos. 36 and 37, will center on Archie’s tragic death and its aftermath. Not surprisingly, news of the character’s fate was widely covered by the media.
In discussing the modernizing of Archie Comics, it would be remiss to not mention one new character who entered the Archie universe a few short years ago: Kevin Keller, who is gay—a revelation that was skillfully introduced when he made his debut in Veronica issue no. 202, published in September 2010. The first openly gay character to ever appear in an Archie comic book, he became popular enough that Archie Comics awarded him his own title beginning in 2012. Created by comic book writer and artist Dan Parent, Kevin was intended to show how Riverdale is a community where people accept each other and treat one another with respect, even if they are different.
Most gay organizations supported the character, while others were less enthused: When a January 2012 issue of Life with Archie advertised the wedding of Kevin and his male partner on its cover, the conservative group One Million Moms threatened Toys “R” Us—which displays Archie Comics at checkout counters—with a boycott. The toy retailer did not issue any public response, but that particular issue of Life with Archie sold out its print run.
In addition to the gang at Riverdale, Archie Comics has created other characters that have become very popular and are still around today. One is Sabrina the Teenage Witch, created by George Gladir and Dan DeCarlo in the early 1960s. This is the story of a charming teenage witch who is like most other teenagers and lives a pretty normal life—though she can make certain problems go away. Hers’ is a fantasy situation that appealed to lots of people over the years.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch first appeared in Archie’s Madhouse issue no. 22, published in October 1962, and has been a solid Archie mainstay ever since. The property not only conquered the animation industry during the late 1960s and early ’70s, but also became a very successful live-action prime time sitcom, which was produced by Viacom and appeared on two different networks in the 1990s and early 2000s. Melissa Joan Hart portrayed the title character, and this version of Sabrina was even spun off into its own television cartoon in 1999.
Another popular Archie Comics creation is Josie and the Pussycats, a rock ’n roll group created by Dan DeCarlo in 1963. The characters first appeared in Archie’s Gals ‘N’ Pals, and produced not only a popular comic book series, but also a few Saturday morning cartoon shows from 1970 to 1974. In 1970, Capitol Records recorded a collection of 16 songs taken from the animated TV show produced by Hanna-Barbera Studios, and a live-action motion picture was produced in 2001 by MGM and Universal.
Meanwhile, in 1968, Archie himself began appearing on TV as a Saturday morning cartoon produced by Filmation Associates on CBS, and was a solid Saturday morning staple in numerous formats for about ten years. The show helped establish Filmation as a reliable television animation studio.
Regardless of television exposure, Archie continues to appear in numerous monthly publications in both comics and digest form, and has excellent distribution around the country. In terms of licensed products, Archie has always been a fixture in toy or stationary store windows. Mattel has released Barbie dolls inspired by Veronica and Betty, as well as Hot Wheels vehicles featuring characters from the comics. Rubie’s Costume Co. has vinyl masks of Archie and Jughead; costume outfits of Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica; and of course, a Josie and the Pussycats costume featuring attached ears and a tail.
Archie and friends can also be found on T-shirts, laser cels, posters, stickers, wallets, key chains, and more.
Stuart Fischer has worked at Universal Studios, where he helped develop shows to be sold to networks, as well as Hanna-Barbera Productions, where he developed shows to be sold to the networks and the first-run syndication market. Fischer has written books including Kids’ TV: The First 25 Years and The Hanna-Barbera Story: The Life and Times of TV’s Greatest Animation Studio, as well as magazine and trade journal articles. He has also created his own comic book, The Man-O-Saurs.