Thursday, November 18, 2010

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 http://mightygodking.com/index.php/2009/06/03/it-puts-the-lotion-on-its-skin/ 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.

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