Monday, November 14, 2005

Frank Doyle, "Archie"'s Comic

Like many people, I grew up reading "Archie" comics, and I have a residual affection for those comics. I also outgrew them, and I know that a lot of them weren't very good, that Archie is never, ever going to choose between Betty and Veronica, and so on. I know perfectly well the difference between thinking something is really good and just seeing it through the haze of nostalgia.

So when I say that "Archie" writer Frank Doyle was really good, you know I mean it, and I'm not just being nostalgic. Frank Doyle may well have been one of the best comic-book writers of all time.

I don't know much about Doyle except what's mentioned at the link above; he came from Brooklyn, was originally a penciller and inker in the last years of the Fiction House company, gave up drawing in favor of writing (though he continued to submit his scripts in storyboard form), joined "Archie" in the 1950s and stayed on until his death in 1996. He was head writer of the company from the early '50s until the mid-'80s, though I don't know if he had the official title of head writer, or if he was just the de facto because he turned out so many stories: he wrote over 10,000 stories for the Archie company.

He wrote for just about every Archie title; he also wrote the early, funny "Josie" comics (before it was re-tooled as "Josie and the Pussycats"). I don't know much about him, as I say; I do know that his stories were consistently funny, and very different from the other stuff being turned out by "Archie" comics -- the other most prolific "Archie" writer, George Gladir, was more conventional -- so much so that it's possible to identify a Doyle story even if, as often happens, the writer is not credited. Here's what Dan DeCarlo said about him when asked who his favorite writer was:

I like Frank Doyle. When I first started to work on Archie, I got his stories. I think he’s the best. He has a way of writing that I’m able to illustrate humorously. He’s got a nice pacing that’s never boring. He’s an old pro, and knows how to handle the situations.

I have no idea whether Doyle had any particular theory of how to write a kids' comic. In practice, his stories usually reflect the idea that since "Archie" stories are very short (five-six pages, usually) and restricted in the types of stories they can do, the best way to approach it is to de-emphasize story and plot and concentrate instead on funny dialogue and the characters' reactions to everyday, mundane situations. Many of Doyle's stories have no plot, really, except maybe a minor twist at the end; instead they set up a situation and have the characters talk about it, crack wise about it, and just generally hang out and interact. It's a comic book about nothing.

And yes, I'm going where you think I'm going with this: I am comparing his work to "Seinfeld." Look at the beginning of this Doyle story from 1986, where Archie realizes that he overslept and forgot what day it is:

ARCHIE: You know what they say about Saturday night, old buddy. Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week.

JUGHEAD: I'll worry about that when it gets here. Right now I'm still working on Friday, of which today is a prime example.

ARCHIE: Say what? Today is not Saturday?

JUGHEAD: I assure you, it's been Friday all day.

ARCHIE: Wow. I fell asleep after dinner. I guess I woke up all confused. It really felt like it was Saturday night.

JUGHEAD: How could you forget? You put in a day of miserable tests.

ARCHIE: Ah, tests... school.

JUGHEAD: That's the trouble with school. All that stuff goes to your head.

ARCHIE: Hey, you know what this means?

REGGIE: Sure. You not only don't know what time it is, you don't even know what day it is.

ARCHIE: I have an extra night! One that no one else has.

BETTY: How do you figure? It's just as much Friday night for us as it is for you.

ARCHIE: Sure, sure. But you knew all the time that it was Friday. It wasn't the least bit unexpected.

BETTY: So? That just means we're brighter than you.

ARCHIE: No, no, no. When you get something unexpected, it is a gift of the Gods, a windfall, a new beginning, a touch of a magic wand.

VERONICA: You're making an awful lot of the fact that you overslept.

REGGIE: And forgot what day it was.

ARCHIE: Right. To me it's Saturday. So the fact that it's really Friday... don't you see? My mind, my whole being, is set on this being Saturday. And it's not. So tonight is like a free night to me. A treasure. A reward. A bonus.

JUGHEAD: You're bonkers. It's your Friday, it's my Friday, it's Ronnie's Friday, it's Betty's Friday, it's everybody's Friday.

REGGIE: Wake up and smell the burgers, Arch. It's Friday night, you're at Pop's, and this is your life.

Another example is this story, from a few years earlier, which is just five pages of discussion about a story that never quite gets going:

Doyle's stuff is extremely talky and often makes use of words, phrases and references that kids might not recognize; the "Archie" audience is young, but Doyle doesn't talk down to them:

VERONICA: Ah, Reggie, Reggie, Reggie! How could you? As dear Willie Shakespeare once said, "These words are razors to my wounded heart!" You all remember, of course.

ARCHIE: Yeah, sure.

JUGHEAD: I never forget anything ol' Willie said.

You see, instead of concentrating on how to get from story point A from story point B, Doyle concentrates on the stuff in-between, and makes the characters articulate, smart and funny. And of course, when it came to basic storytelling mechanics, he knew more than anyone in comics about structuring and pacing a typical Archie story, which is exceptionally hard (you've got only five-six pages and you've got to tell the whole story without making it simplistic or static). A lot of Doyle's tricks for structure, pace, and where to put plot information without making it seem clunky can be seen all over the work of non-superhero comics writers then and now.

He also sometimes liked to throw in elaborate introductory captions that were as much fun as the story itself.

And he could sometimes throw in things that you wouldn't expect to find in an "Archie" comic. There was a Sabrina the Teenage Witch one-panel gag where Sabrina and her Aunt Hilda are decorating a Christmas tree; Sabrina puts an angel on top of the tree, but Aunt Hilda objects: "An angel offends my sense of witchery, somehow." Aunt Hilda transforms the angel into a devil, complete with horns: "Now, that's my kind of angel." This placement of a Satanic figure on a Christmas tree, as well as the acknowledgement of the Satanic side of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, was of course written by Frank Doyle. How this squared with the conservative and sometimes openly religious content of the rest of "Archie," I don't know.

Even when Doyle wrote a longer or plot-heavy story, something to fit in with whatever trend the publishers were trying to cash in on at the time, he often threw in some unique line of dialogue or funny observation that could only come from Frank Doyle. And I'm pretty sure, despite the lack of credits, that Doyle wrote the long and almost totally insane story where Jughead is mistaken for a diplomat and kidnapped by a gang of "banditos" in Honduras. The only thing that saves him and his friends from being killed is that Jughead earns the protection of the head bandito's fearsome mother, based on the fact that he's the only one who likes her cooking. Finally Veronica convinces the banditos to give up being banditos and go work for her father's corporation, whose cafeteria can give them better food than they'll get at home.

My feelings about Frank Doyle's work can be summed up this way: anybody (well, anybody who's capable of it) can do good work where good work is expected of them. What's especially impressive is someone who does consistently good work where he could easily get away with less. Frank Doyle could have had a forty-five year career with Archie Comics by writing stories that were not particularly funny or particularly unique; instead he was a truly funny and unique writer, and I'll always be grateful to him for subconsciously showing me, as a kid, the difference between run-of-the-mill work and something with a real creative spark.

To close my little tribute to Frank Doyle, here's a transcript of the complete text of a Jughead story called "In Search of Sanity." The artwork is by "Archie"'s best artist at that time, Samm Schwartz, and while the script is uncredited, I'm almost certain it's by Doyle; if it's not, it's a terrific imitation of his style. Here's the whole story:

(Jughead appears at Betty's door, with a Steve Martin arrow through his head and strumming a ukulele.)

JUGHEAD: How do you do, Ma'am? I am a wild and crazy troubadour, searching for the Bluebird of Happiness.

BETTY: Of course you are. Mom, has the Bluebird of Happiness come by this morning?

BETTY'S MOTHER: No, dear, I haven't seen him. Or is it "her?"

(Betty and Jughead leave the house together.)

BETTY: Let me go with you, troubie-baby. We'll look for the cheerful chirper together.

JUGHEAD: Glad to have you aboard.

BETTY: Ah, here's Veronica. Let's ask her. Ron, this is a wild and crazy troubadour who's searching for the Bluebird of Happiness.

VERONICA: Any luck, Wild and Crazy?

JUGHEAD: Not yet. I did see three sad chickadees and a rather depressed owl. The closest thing to a happy bird was a snickering sparrow.

VERONICA: Well, at least it's an improvement in mood.

BETTY: Exactly how would one find a Bluebird of Happiness?

JUGHEAD: Delicious!

VERONICA: What do you do when you're not bird hunting, Bubbi?

JUGHEAD: What do I do when I'm not bird hunting?

BETTY: She asked you first.

VERONICA: That's right, I did.

JUGHEAD: I try to find the answer to the universal question.

BETTY: "What is the true meaning of life?"

JUGHEAD: People really ask that? The universal question I had in mind was, "What's for dinner?"

BETTY: Ah, that I can help you with.

JUGHEAD: Verily?

BETTY: Also in truth. Are you ready for this?

JUGHEAD: Oh, yes, yes!

BETTY: The answer to the universal question is....

JUGHEAD: Yes? Yes?

BETTY: Meatloaf!!

JUGHEAD: Wow! Ohh, wow!! Golly gee!! That's deep!

BETTY: Not really. About so high. But very tasty.

JUGHEAD: Am I invited?

BETTY: You're a wild and crazy troubadour -- do your thing.

JUGHEAD: You mean sing for my supper?

BETTY: That's it, Troubie! Make with the music.

JUGHEAD: Okay, let me tune up my zither.

VERONICA: They just don't make zithers like they used to.

JUGHEAD: Cough! Cough! Ahem! Hack! Mi mi mi! Do do do!
(sings, accompanying himself very badly on the ukulele)
Oh, they hanged ol' Ned from the ol' pine tree,
And his hound dawg howled till the clock struck three,
An' he pined away 'neath the ol' pine tree,
An' at dawn ol' Dawg wuz as dead as Ned!

BETTY: I'll throw in a hot apple pie for dessert if you don't sing anymore.

JUGHEAD: Now, that is music to my ears.

VERONICA: Sometimes I have the feeling I'm the only sane person left in the world.

The End

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OH NO! I just found out my mom through out all my archie comic digests a few months ago! I was gonna scan my samm schwartz comics and make a blog of analysis!