What makes the best comic book covers? It’s a great topic for debate. For us as individuals there is no wrong answer, of course. It’s purely subjective. But with a little thought it is frequently possible to explain what it is about a particular image that grabs you. The best ones are the ones that make you stop and check out something you weren’t previously going to purchase – and in some cases, you even end up picking up a title you’ve never even heard of before.
With over 75 years in existence, Archie Comics is one of the most successful comic book companies in the world. One of the reasons that they have stayed around for so long and in such good shape is that for decades the company understood exactly who their audience was.
Where the editors once let characters such as Archie, Veronica, and Betty stay frozen in time for decades under a bubble known as Riverdale, the last few years has seen the company bring about one of the most diverse, understanding, and successful reinventions of a comic book character in comic history. Death, sex, zombies, and fear have recently become part of a world that once seemed to have stopped in 1957. Open an Archie comic book in 2017 and you can never be exactly sure what will be happening in Riverdale.
Most recently, Archie has moved to The CW where they are enjoying early success as a TV show. Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and the rest of the gang from Riverdale are now coping with the realities of life as part of a TV series that reviewers are saying is closer to the skewed reality of David Lynch than the one that Bob Montana drew so beautifully for decades.
In celebration of Archie Comics’ recent success, let’s look back at 60 years and see what they had on the newsstands in February 1957. Each one is a perfect example of the art, writing, and marketing work that has kept the company going for decades.
The roots of the company go all the way back to when Superman began setting the world on fire in May 1938, there wasn’t a writer, publisher or editor in New York City who didn’t want the change that was falling from DC’s suddenly overflowing coffers. Originally known as MLJ Magazines, the company we now know as Archie Comics was initially formed in 1939 by a couple of veterans of pulp magazines to create and publish comic books.
In 1941, inspired by the success and all-around appeal of the Andy Hardy movies, the company placed a new teen character named Archie Andrews inside Pep Comics #22 (December 1941). Up until then MLJ was best known as the home of The Shield, America’s first patriotic-themed superhero (sorry Cap). There were other minor characters such as The Black Hood and Steel Sterling, Man of Steel.
As the hero’s began to disappear from their line, MLJ added more Archie-related titles. Other characters such as fashion model Katy Keene began to show up in their line. Funny animal books such as Super Duck, the Cock-Eyed Wonder also helped pay the bills.
Recognizing a good thing when it happened, MLJ even created a clone of their own success. Just like EC Comics did with MAD and when they added a second humor magazine named PANIC, the company started a title featuring another teenager with a great-sounding name, Wilbur.
By the mid-1950s Archie Comics had developed a clear and easily recognizable house-style as well as a lot of books related to Archie Andrews. For the next 50-plus years not much changed. As publishing trends shifted they did get rid of fashion books and funny animals. But the company continually held a tight editorial reign over their stable of characters and the artists and writers who worked for them. All the while they cruised along nicely, entertaining readers and making a few bucks for decades.
Things have changed.
Today’s comic audience is fractured, often hard to read and quick to move onto something new when boredom strikes or they smell complacency. Since the arrival of new CEO Jon Goldwater in 2009, Archie Comics has brilliantly risen to the challenge posed by that new audience. As they do, we can’t forget that what brought them to that success.
Take a look at the four covers that were released in February 1957. Two of them. Laugh and Archie’s Pal Jughead, are such picture-perfect representations of the Archie house-style that they could have appeared at any time in the last 55 years. With a solid color taking up nearly the entire background and the main character dangling from a ladder in a sight-gag, Super Duck Comics #73 (April 1957) looks as if it could pass for a Dell title of almost any era. As to Katy Keene Fashion Book #16 (April 1957), the title says it all. The term “Fashion Book” in the title was meant to attract young female readers who might not realize that this comic book was meant for them. Inside the book paper dolls, new designs for clothes and especially Bill Woggon’s art attracted readers of both genders for the same reason. They liked fashion, not necessarily comic books.
Today fashion books such as Katy Keene are long gone and when funny animals appear on a comic book page, they tend to carry large guns and make wisecracks. Every one of these books from 1957 is solid with good looking and entertaining art. Comic books such as these were for years the brick and mortar of the comic industry. Like those two invaluable tools of construction, we may not see them every single time we walk by. But without them the landscape would be considerably different.
With the work that they are doing in 2017, Mr. Goldwater, writers and artists such as Paul Kupperberg, Mark Waid, Fiona Staples and playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who is also Archie Comics’ Chief Creative Officer) clearly understand the importance of the past.
You use it to build the future. That’s a pretty good way to find new success.