By Andrew A. SmithScripps Howard News Service
The bid by Archie Comics to become a bigger player in pop culture keeps expanding, buttressed this month by the first comprehensive history of Archie and the company that bears his name.
Yoe, a comics and pop culture historian, does yeoman work here in clean, concise prose. He covers the company’s 1939 founding as superhero publisher MLJ Magazines (the name derived from the first initials of founders Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater), and its later transformation into Archie Comics, when that character, who first appeared in 1941, became the star. He provides summaries of the main Riverdale residents, and biographies of each of the major editors, writers and artists. He devotes a couple of pages each to big Archie spin-offs, like Little Archie and The Archies cartoons, band and records. He mentions some of the lesser lights, like Josie and the Pussycats, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and various fads.
It’s a handsome book, with a die-cut cover of the famous three-on-a-soda scene that the United States Postal Service recreated as its representative Archie stamp. The reproduction, even of 70-year-old stories, is top-notch.
But don’t expect any surprises; Yoe toes the company line. For example, the acrimonious debate over who created Archie isn’t even mentioned, with all credit going to editor Goldwater and none to writer/artist Bob Montana or presumed early writer Vic Bloom. The company’s aggressive role in the formation and perpetuation of the Comics Code, long a thorn in the side of comics fans, is only given a few perfunctory nods.
And so forth. But, really, I didn’t expect much more than that. This is just a starting point for examining Archie Comics, and it is very welcome. Archie: A Celebration is a fine – and fun – addition to any bookshelf, for fans and casual readers alike.
The latest volume in Vanguard’s Frazetta library is White Indian ($49.95), a strip that appeared in various Western comics published by Magazine Enterprises from 1949 to 1953. It featured Dan Brand, a Philadelphia socialite during Revolutionary War times who ends up being trained by Native Americans, gains a sidekick named Tipi and runs around the frontier in a breechclout. Brand, who is heroically proportioned and amazingly competent at everything, mostly arranges peace between Indians and settlers, while fighting frontier bad guys like “bad” Indians, bootleggers, gun-runners and Tories.
This is pretty clichéd stuff, of course, not to mention historically inaccurate, incredibly implausible and more than a little insulting to Native Americans. But we’re not here for the stories – we’re here for Frazetta’s art, which does not disappoint.
By the time of the famous Conan paintings, Frazetta had become unique in style and technique. But in these earlier works, you can see his influences, which include Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon), Hal Foster (Tarzan) and possibly Joe Kubert (1940s Hawkman). Frazetta’s muscular male figures in action are consistently breath-taking, and emphasized to the point of homoeroticism. Frazetta’s backgrounds and animals are equally lush and impressive, so the entire package is page after page of stunning eye candy.
The back of White Indian is fleshed out with stories from other publishers of the era from a variety of genres (including Western, war and Viking) and a series that called “Heroic True Life Stories” from 1952-53 Heroic Comics. Presumably these stories are included because they weren’t numerous enough to carry a volume of their own and/or White Indian didn’t fill the necessary pages.
* Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Strange Tales Vol. 4 ($59.99) is the first volume to reprint Strange Tales from after the imposition of the draconian Comics Code of 1954, and they are almost painful to read. As comics historian Michael Vassallo says in the foreword: “What’s noticeable is how tame these post-Code stores immediately are. There is no serious conflict, no death, no destruction and no violence. Just Code-scrubbed blandness.”
Especially objectionable is when a sad or serious story has a clumsily pasted-on final panel that puts the “bad” ending on another planet or dimension or something. This is fascinating from a historical perspective, but pretty tough slogging for a casual reader.
Art from top:
Archie: A Celebration of America's Favorite Teenager is a basic overview of the character and the company that bears his name. Courtesy IDW Publishing
In 2010, the USPS released this Archie stamp
White Indian collects the strip by legendary artist Frank Frazetta that ran in the early 1950s. Courtesy Vanguard Productions
Marvel Masterworks: Strange Tales Vol. 4 straddles the era when the Comics Code of 1954 was introduced, and contains stories on either side of that division for comparison. Courtesy Marvel Entertainment
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.