Sunday, February 27, 2005

Ha Ha, Thassa Joke

I'm a little late on pointing this out, but Archie Comics semi-recently released a collection of Bob Bolling's "Little Archie" stories -- probably the best work to come out of Archie Comics and some of the best kids' comics ever done, period. The selection is a bit disappointing; though it's called "The Best of Little Archie", it restricts itself almost entirely to one kind of story Bolling did: the action-adventure story where Little Archie finds himself up abducted by the Martians, Abercrombie and Stitch, or facing off against robots created by Mad Doctor Doom ("They'll be sorry they kicked me out of the hangnail clinic!"). These are good, but Bolling did a lot of other stuff with these characters, like gentle comedies, and some sweetly sentimental stories like this and this (those sample pages are from the Oddball Comics column, written by Scott Shaw, a big Bolling fan).

The great thing about Bolling is that he not only doesn't write down to kids, he doesn't make the equally common mistake of writing over their heads. As this essay (the illustrations are unfortunately no longer available) points out, many so-called children's comics use words that kids won't understand and concepts that they won't grasp. This is better, perhaps, than dumbing things down for kids. But what Bolling does is to write very simple stories and dialogue that are nonetheless not dumbed down in the least; Bolling had a gift for dialogue that was as great as his drawing ability, and an ear for combinations of words that stick in a kid's mind (he loved alliterative names: "Carson's Creek," "Blue-Tooth Baker," "Fangs Fogarty"). Simple, funny, imaginative and memorable, Bolling's "Little Archie" comics are regarded as something special by people who like good children's comics.

They don't have a lot in common with the regular "Archie" characters; Bolling kept their names, but re-imagined them and their relationships, so that there was no Archie-Betty-Veronica triangle (instead, Betty and Veronica were, alternately or together, trying to get Little Archie interested in girls), and a number of characters who had no place in the regular Archie comics, like Little Ambrose. (When someone asked Bolling why Ambrose doesn't appear with the teenage Archie characters, he drew a picture of a grave with the legend: "R.I.P. Little Ambrose.") In the '60s, after Bolling stopped doing the comics, the publisher ordered the other Little Archie artist, Dexter Taylor -- who did the same kinds of stories as Bolling, but not as well -- to make everything more like the standard Archie comics, and from then on Little Archie stories were just regular Archie stories with smaller kids; these are to be avoided. However, Bolling has occasionally returned to Little Archie over the years, sometimes with excellent results.

Incidentally, "Mad Doctor Doom" was introduced into Little Archie around the same time that "Doctor Doom" turned up in Marvel comics; nobody really knows who came first.

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