When I was a kid, I didn't much care for real comic books; that is, the big, thin, wobbly ones that contained only a few stories each and got kept in plastic wrappers and sold for a fortune. No, I, and many other kids I knew preferred digests. They contained more stories, fewer ads for sea monkeys and magical bodybuilding systems, and were easier to carry around in your pocket. And most of the digests being sold at the time were of two comic-book series. One, of course, was Archie, the king of the digest format. The other was Richie Rich.
I enjoyed them enough at the time. But now, looking back on it, I feel very little gratitude for the enjoyment Richie Rich provided me as a tyke. Instead, I feel revulsion. Because Richie Rich comics sucked.
Now, maybe someone who knows more about this than I do can identify a time when they did not suck, or an artist or writer who did non-sucky work in the Harvey Comics Salt Mines. But I'm sticking to my guns on this one. They were some of the worst comics ever created.
Not because of the premise, exactly. Many people correctly point out that the premise of "Richie Rich" is kind of stomach-turning, since it's all about celebration of the worst kind of conspicuous consumption. Every story was basically just about how rich Richie was: how many cool toys he had, how big his house was, how his family had their own police force for the estate, known as the "Estate Police" (though unlike Daddy Warbucks, Richie's father never actually had his private police force kill anybody -- I think), how many servants he had, etc., etc., literally ad nauseam. But that's really harmless, an extention of the childhood fantasy of how a rich person, and indeed anyone who doesn't need to beg his parents for spending money, probably lives. And most of the things Richie did with his money were just slightly more high-tech versions of pleasures that are available even to non-rich kids; Richie's TV set may have taken up an entire wall, but as a small child, our TV set seemed pretty big to me, so it didn't seem like Richie's stuff was that much better. And the really exciting things Richie did, like getting kidnapped, having adventures, and, well, getting kidnapped, were things that could happen to kids without much money. So Richie Rich comics aren't in any danger of turning kids into crass materialists, at least, not any more so than they already are.
Richie Rich comics had awful artwork -- every kid was a puffy-cheeked monster who looked like he had never quite gotten over the mumps; every facial expression and pose was exactly the same for every emotion -- but that, too, wasn't quite the problem. Richie's sister publication Casper the Friendly Ghost -- they often did crossover stories where Richie met Casper and thought it was all a dream -- had equally bad artwork and exactly the same character design (as Bart and Lisa Simpson explained, Casper is the ghost of Richie after he got tired of the pursuit of money and killed himself), and while those comics are bad, they're not quite as bad as Richie.
No, the real problem with Richie Rich comics was that the stories were just some of the worst, stupidest, most intelligence-insulting things ever to find their way into the world of kiddie entertainment. I'm not saying that kiddie comics need to be brilliant or complex, but they need to make sense. Richie Rich comics never made sense, and you get the feeling that the writers figured that there was no need to make sense when they were writing for stupid kids.
There were two basic kinds of stupid nonsensical "Richie Rich" stories. The first was the "Look how rich he is" story. This usually consists of Richie showing off his wealth for some impressed visitor, who spends the whole story cooing about how cool it is to have a privately-owned rocket ship or a dog with dollar signs on him. Sometimes this visitor will turn out to be a "crook" (rule # 1 of the Richverse: the term "crook" must be used at least five times in a story, and no synonym -- not "criminal," not "robber" -- is acceptable) who tries and "comically" fails to steal Richie's vast wealth. These stories have no plot, and indeed, no actual premise beyond the premise that Richie is really, really rich.
Occasionally, for variety, Richie will face off in some battle-of-who's-richer with his "bad" cousin Reggie Van Dough or local siren Mayda Munny, who is constantly trying to steal Richie away from his girlfriend Gloria. Reggie and Mayda were supposed to be the bad greedy rich people who would make Richie look sympathetic by comparison. Of course the opposite is true. There's nothing more annoying than a rich and powerful person who tries to pretend he's not rich and powerful and instead pretends he's One of Us. The most infuriating thing about Richie is not that he's rich but that the writers keep trying to convince us that he's just another kid (or, as the comics' sub-title used to call him, "That poor little rich boy" -- yeah, poor, poor boy).
Which brings us to the worst part of the "Richie is really rich" stories: Freckles and Peewee, Richie's poor buddies. Freckles was a red-haired kid who looked like a cross between Pippi Longstocking and Alfalfa; Pee-Wee was a little kid who hadn't learned to talk but could strike badly-drawn stock poses. When we saw their home, it was a run-down shack where they lived, poor but happy, with their mother (I don't remember if they had a father). But any time Richie offered to, you know, slip them some cash, Freckles would reply "Oh, no, we'll help you only for friendship!" while the mute Peewee made a "no, no, no" gesture.
I guess the writers thought it would prove Richie wasn't a snob to have him hanging out with poor kids. In practice, it made you wonder why the hell Richie didn't say to hell with their refusals and use some of that money to fix up their hovel or, better yet, build them a new house. I remember a friend of mine in college got very angry about this. We were discussing the Richie comics we had both grown up reading, and when I brought up Freckles and Peewee, he went red-faced and sputtered: "Goddamn Freckles and Peewee! They lived in a shack. A shack! And that bastard Richie did nothing for them!" He got still angrier and I changed the subject.
Another Richie friend who turned up a lot was "Jackie Jokers," a kid who wanted to be a comedian and dressed like he was auditioning to take Peter Lawford's place in the Rat Pack. (Jackie also starred in his own stories in the '70s, mostly incredibly lame parodies of then-popular TV shows and movies; so Carrie became "Carry," starring Jackie as a kid who's always forced to Carry other kids' books, until he discovers he has telikinetic powers.) Sample story: Jackie and Richie go to Jackie's audition for a commercial. To test the auditioners, the director has the cue card guy hold one of the cards upside down to see how they react. The first guy auditioning completely loses it: "GASP! It's UPSIDE DOWN!" He doesn't get the job. Jackie, however, comes up with the brilliant solution of turning himself upside town to read the card. He gets the job and everybody's happy. This actually has slightly more of a plot than the average Richie Rich story.
The other kind of Richie story was the "adventure" story, where Richie solves a mystery or has some kind of close shave. This kind of thing should, by rights, have made sense; how much can you screw up a kiddie adventure story? You can when Richie's most frequent nemesis is an evil scientist with a giant lightbulb where his head should be. (Apparently there was a freak lab accident that caused his head to be replaced by said lightbulb, so he calls himself "Dr. N-R-Gee" and is seeking revenge on the world.) And when the other plots include these classics:
- Richie goes to a wrestling match where the chief bad guy wrestler, "Furious Fernando," is a big hulking guy who doesn't speak a word of English, but only speaks a language no one has ever heard of. When he's being pinned down in the match, he leans over to Richie and says a few words in his native language. Consulting with one of his Dad's researchers, Richie finds out that the lanugage is from a country known only as "U" because it's "unpronounceable." With the help of a huge computer and a dream, Richie and the researcher create a box that can automatically translate anything that's said in the mysterious language into English, and vice-versa. By training this box on the people who are guarding Fernando, Richie discovers that he's not really a wrestler, he's actually a nobleman from "U" who was tricked into becoming a wrestler by evil schemers who told him that his daughter had been kidnapped and taken to America. Little does he know that the girl is actually being held captive by her uncle, who used this whole wrestling thing to get Fernando out of the country. When Richie tells Fernando about this, he goes batshit and beats the heck out of the guards (in a G-rated way, though). At the end he is reunited with his daughter, the scheming uncle from "U" is punished, and Richie re-dubs big dude "Friendly Fernando."
- Richie is trying to find out the location of the treasure left behind by his great-uncle Oppus Rich. All he has to go on is the fact that Oppus donated a Chinese junk to a museum, and the message he left in lieu of a will: "My vision -- top of treasure junk will not be." Finally Richie realizes that "My vision" means "Oppus's sight," which sounds like "Opposite," and if you take the opposite of the rest of that sentence, it's "bottom of junk treasure will be." Realizing that the treasure is in the bottom of the junk, Richie's dad congratulates him for figuring out a riddle that no one in the world had ever been able to solve.
Richie Rich's comic book career has been over for some years, but Macaulay Culkin played him in a live-action movie. Even Macaulay Culkin deserves better.