MLJ clearly hit gold with Archie Andrews in 1941.
Not right away, of course. It did take a year or so for Bob Montana to finally land on the formula that lasted for more than 40 years.
But what was that formula? What was it about those initial characters that resonated so well?
I started wondering about this a few years ago (maybe a few decades ago; time slides by when you're old) when I realized what was up with Jughead. No, he's not an "ace." No, he's not stoned. His original characterization — let's just call it "story niche," which is all it was — is pretty obvious if you read the very early Archies.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here are my initial impressions, and I hope that all of you can chime in with your understanding of cultural mores and entertainment tropes from a time long gone.
I suspect this character springs from Andy Hardy. Hardy and his family debuted in a stage play in 1928, and the movie series, starring Andy Rooney and occasionally Judy Garland, launched in 1937. There were nine Andy Hardy movies before Archie. Two more in 1941, the year Archie debuted.
The premise of the series was that Andy was a good-hearted but impulsive teenager who always got in over his head due to immaturity, selfishness, recklessness or some other teenage character flaw. His stern, implacably moral but kind-hearted father would then explain how Andy had gone wrong, and what he had to do to correct the problem. Which Andy would do, reap the rewards of Doing the Right Thing, and learn a lesson.
Which sounds a lot like Archie. Except that the "Father Knows Best" aspect was left out entirely. And he never learned any lessons.
But was Andy Hardy even the first to exemplify this concept? Given that my description would also describe the later Leave It to Beaver, I don't think it's exactly rare in American pop culture. Can we trace it back to Mark Twain and Charles Dickens?
And it's not like "teenagers" were a thing in 1941. The idea that there was some state between childhood and adulthood was late to bloom in Western culture. The idea didn't really exist until the invention of the automobile, which let courtship escape front porches, sitting rooms and the watchful eyes of parents.
So maybe that's it. Maybe Archie was the first fictional character to represent the teenager with his own car, freedom from his parents, and therefore a dating life that was all his own (badly managed, which was funny). Betty and Jughead didn't have cars, and even wealthy Veronica wasn't depicted driving one that I recall. (Reggie, of course, had a car. More on him later.)
But if that were so, I'd expect that concept to be preceded in movies, or for the great unwashed to otherwise be familiar with it before Archie's debut. Are there any examples of that?
I think it's also important to note that it was tweenager "Chick" Andrews, not Archie, that debuted in 1941. As I said above, it took a few years for Montana to find the formula. And part of that, I suspect, was aging Archie up a few years, to semi-independent high school age.
Whatever it was, something clicked with readers, keeping Archie popular until the '80s. Which is when his popularity began to flag. Which was also when the Internet happened. Is that a clue? Did a different kind of freedom for youth supercede the old version?
Anyway, I'm interested to hear what y'all have to say.
I teased this earlier. But it was something I had to think about. It was not a revelation that came quickly or easily.
I accepted Jughead, like all the Archie gang, prima facie. They were there before I was born, so they were background as I was growing up and I never had any reason to ask any questions. Like Jesus, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Dracula and Mickey Mouse, the Riverdale gang had always been there, since the Dawn of Time — as far as the Li'l Capn was concerned. They were immutable concepts, Easter Island statues that didn't need explaining.
It was quite a revelation to the Li'l Capn when he discovered that Superman was created after his father was born. I had to think about that. To him, Superman was like Wolverine to me — a "new" character that came along after he had already been living his life for some time. Whoa!
But I didn't really think about Jughead until I read some early Archie comics (possibly Dark Horse's HC collections). In those issues, when we saw Jughead at home (which was rare), he had the giveaway hallmarks of a certain type of character I had seen in a million 1930s movies, TV shows and cartoons. Those being walls with cracked plaster (with those mysterious stripes showing through), chairs with broken legs tied together with twine, and a mattress with springs sticking out.
Jughead was poor! He was the poor friend! Now I get it!
In the '60s, when I was reading Jughead comics by Samm Schwarz, we would occasionally see him at home. But he had a typical middle-class Riverdale home, just like Archie's and Betty's. The joke was that both his mother and father looked exactly like him: skinny, closed eyes, flute snoot and all.
But in the '40s, Jughead was the guy from the wrong side of the tracks that was the middle-class guy's sidekick. This seems a familiar trope, although I can't tell you where I know it from. It just feels right.
But this explains it all. Why does Jughead overeat? Because he's hungry! Why is he not interested in girls? Because he's hungry! (And romance falls a little lower than starvation on Maslow's scale.) Why is he so skinny? Well ... you get the idea.
And he wears the beanie because that's what poor kids did in the '40s. He even had patches on his clothes in some early Archie comics. And he wears a school sweatshirt from the wrong school because he can't afford a Riverdale varsity jacket, like Archie — what he's wearing, the reader must imagine, is a hand-me-down from a never-seen older brother, or his father, or an uncle. Wearing inappropriate, downscale clothes was a poverty signifier.
Jughead was poor, but was going to a school with wealthier kids. One of the things that attracted me to the character in the '60s was that he clearly didn't care what anyone thought of him. But in the '60s, that was copping an attitude. In the '40s, he didn't care what people thought because he couldn't change his circumstances, which was probably true of a lot of kids coming out of the Depression. He knew people looked down on him, but there was nothing he could do about it. All he had was Archie, to whom he was doggedly devoted.
So Jughead isn't mysterious. He's a Jack Kirby character from the Lower East Side!
Betty was also introduced in Pep Comics #22 in 1941. She was a tweenager with a crush on "Chick" which went nowhere. And that pretty much sums up her character for the next 40 years.
She's a girl, so she didn't get much characterization early on. She pined after Archie, who pined after Veronica, and that was pretty much the joke. She got more agency — and a little bit of a sneaky streak, which always backfired — in the '60s. Her tomboy aspect — good at sports, good at fixing cars — was emphasized in the '70s and '80s. That made her a better match for Archie than Veronica, which I think was the point then. (After that, I don't know.)
She's rich. That's pretty much the whole deal.
In those early days, it wasn't explained why a rich guy like Hiram Lodge would build a mansion in a backwater like Riverdale. But that's because Riverdale being a little town in the middle of nowhere is a '60s invention.
In the '40s, it wasn't clear what or where Riverdale was exactly — but it was very likely a suburb or seaside vacation town of a big Northeastern city like Boston. Sort of like the vacation towns that Bob Montana worked in on the stage or as a waiter.
So a rich girl isn't a strange sight in a town if Riverdale is what I think it was.
And why does she date Archie? In the early years it was because he was convenient (and had a car) and later on it was because Betty wanted him. (Even though they were best friends in every scenario where Archie wasn't present.)
Like Betty (and initially Jughead), Veronica was more story construct than character. But it was a familiar story construct. Like the rich bubbleheads in movies like Bringing Up Baby.
I had a "friend" like Reggie. We lived in the same neighborhood, so regardless of our preferences, we were thrown together a lot. He hated me, and I felt sorry for him. But it's not like we could avoid each other, especially if there was a pickup football game. So I didn't wonder much why Archie and Reggie shared so many stories, when they clearly couldn't stand each other.
But there's more than that to Reggie, pop culture-wise, that I'm not sure about. It has to do with his slicked-down hair. And the money (he wasn't Veronica rich, but he had a car and great clothes). It reminds me a little of fast-talker leader types in kids movies in the '40s, like Little Rascals and Dead End Kids. They weren't bad guys, but they were certainly sneaky.
And in '40s movies, it was always the slicked-down-hair guy who was the baddie, the chief torpedo or the sneaky rich guy or the smarmy playboy that the genuine guy had to compete with romantically for The Girl. And, generally, Slick Hair would have money, whereas Genuine Guy would not.
Think King Wesley in It Happened One Night, or John Sloan in Christmas in Connecticut.
Have I got it right, Legionnaires? What can you tell me about Slick Hair guys?