Archie Comics recently made headline news when “America’s Typical Teenager” met an untimely end in the Life with Archie comic. In that title, Archie took a bullet meant for his gay Senate candidate pal, Kevin Keller. Arguably the biggest comics story of the summer, the death of Archie put the independently owned and operated publisher in the global spotlight, helping them make it vividly clear that Riverdale is no longer the innocent place it once was.
It is the latest move for a company determined to shake up their safe image, one that has yielded big results and also reflects how in today’s complicated marketplace their books need to adapt to the times or die. Things are much simpler in IDW’s new hardcover Archie: Daily Newspaper Comics: The Swingin’ Sixties: Volume Two: 1963-1965.Yet in their own way, these strips are very much a reflection of what people of the era needed their Archie to be.
The third collection of vintage strips written and illustrated by Archie creator Bob Montana, this hefty tome is a far cry from today’s zombie and violence-ridden Riverdale comics. As writer Bruce Canwell makes clear in his lengthy intro, the Riverdale of the 1960s was hermetically sealed from the tumult besieging the world. So with the notable exception of a few space race and Beatles mentions (including one in which Montana misguidely suggests they are as much of a passing fad as hula hoops), a throwaway joke that subtly references the prayer in school controversy, and some digs at folk singers, there is little indication that life outside of Archie’s hometown was rapidly and unmistakably changing.
The beach trips, school antics and eternal quest for fun experienced by Archie and his pals and gals over the course of the book’s nearly 300 pages are as certain as sunrise, or, if you prefer, how Archie’s trademark crosscut hairstyle will make you yearn for waffle fries. Readers could take a break from reading about the death of JFK to briefly put aside their fears and get a chuckle from Jughead’s latest scheme or Archie’s clumsy behavior. These comics served their purpose twofold: not only did they entertain, but they distracted.
This book is the latest installment in the Library of American Comics’ ongoing collaboration with IDW that is dedicated to keep important and noteworthy titles from vanishing into obscurity. More than anything, what these strips accomplish is to act as a reminder of how stunning a writer and artist Bob Montana was. Frequently, he is too often marginalized when people discuss Archie’s history, with his work being overshadowed by Dan DeCarlo’s famed redesign of the characters–a style that more of less remains Archie’s house style to this day.
But the argument can be made that Montana’s art is sleeker than DeCarlo’s. What it lacks in voluptuousness it more than makes up for in expressiveness. Montana’s take on Mr. Weatherbee (who, in the strips featured here, hasn’t been named other than ‘Principal’ yet) is pure joy, with the comedy mined from the character’s massive size constantly doing battle with the increasingly put-upon expressions on his face. Indeed, the funniest strips featured here don’t even include Archie and the gang. The, er, biggest laughs are elicited from the endless confrontations between Weatherbee and cafeteria worker Miss Beazley — a cook so bad that she orders in outside food for her lunch.
Reading the book’s over-800 strips in one sitting, you will begin to gain insight into Montana’s approach to his work. Each strip features four panels, with the first usually featuring a character-based joke, the middle two dealing with exposition and development of the gag, and the fourth and final panel delivering the well-crafted punchline. Montana’s go-to laugh getter is to have a hat, or, in Mr. Weatherbee’s case, a toupee, fly off the character’s head to denote shock. Throughout the course of this book, Montana brandishes this weapon from his comedic arsenal several times, and it never fails to get a laugh.
And make no mistake about it, the work presented here is extremely funny. As the creator of Archie et al, Montana was in the enviable position of developing the template for each character’s behavior. Each subsequent Archie writer/illustrator has been presenting variations on the theme originally created by Montana. So for every maverick like Frank Doyle or Samm Schwartz you have the misfires of creatives like Al Hartley, who ignored Montana’s gift of understatement by going as broad as possible in his Archie work. All of these figures, though, are working from Montana’s blueprint, for he was the man who firmly established Archie as being a clumsy, lovesick, well-meaning guy, Jughead as a woman-hating glutton, and so on.
In many ways, this release is the perfect introduction to the Archie characters (certainly moreso than the digests which often feature subpar filler material alongside stronger work). The four-panel stories featured here may stand alone, but when viewed together they form a tapestry of warmth and humor that readers could wrap around themselves in times of uncertainty. They are as necessary today as they were when they were originally published. So while Archie as a company has made Riverdale change with the times, there will always be books like this that serve up heaping helpings of welcome nostalgia that make one, if only for a moment, feel like they are home and safe again.