Monday, June 29, 2009

A Closer Look at Samm Schwartz

It's been long enough since my last Archie-related post (these posts are an outgrowth of some research I was doing) that I can justify posting this article I found around that time: what I believe is one of the few newspaper articles on Samm Schwartz, if not the only one. It's from the February 21, 1985 edition of the Miami Herald, written by Constance Prater.

One thing I should say before getting to the article is that Schwartz's work on Jughead -- which as I've said numerous times, is some of my favorite work in any comic book, from any company, superhero, cartoon, whatever -- actually got better after his company was no longer as good.

Schwartz was with MLJ/Archie almost from the beginning (he may have been brought in by his friend Joe Edwards), and he always did good work; he later became the primary Jughead artist and soon became synonymous with that character, whose humor and stories were a little different from everybody else's. (Archie's most popular character with its predominantly female audience is Betty, but I suspect that with boy readers, Jughead is the favorite; he certainly was mine.) In the mid-'60s Schwartz was lured away by the ill-fated Tower Comics to be one of their editors and artists; he drew most of the "Tippy Teen" comics. When Tower folded, he went back to Archie, which really needed him back: in his absence, the art on Jughead had been suffering badly. (When Schwartz left, the title was given to another veteran, Bill Vigoda, who simply wasn't as good.)

Schwartz's work after coming back to Archie was even better than it had been before, loosened up by his experience at Tower. He started throwing in more crazy background gags of his own, and returning to the '40s/'50s style of not respecting the boundaries of the panels: characters' legs and arms would protrude from one panel to another, they would stand on the speech balloons of the people in the panels below them:

Schwartz was also essentially a one-man operation. He did all the inking and lettering himself (even using the same lettering for nearly all his story titles); it was said that when they sent him a story, the editors never knew exactly what they were going to get until they received the completed black-and-white version.

Here's one of my favorite examples of Schwartz's elaborate bacgkround gags: while the exposition is going on, we see a complete story playing out in the background: somebody finds a bird in his locker, the bird flies over and snatches Mr. Weatherbee's toupee.

As the '70s went on and proceeded into the '80s, the artwork at Archie was no longer what it had been. Dan DeCarlo got kind of bland; Harry Lucey was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease and retired in the middle of the decade; he was replaced with DeCarlo, his sons, and DeCarlo-alikes like Stan Goldberg. Schwartz (and Bolling, when he contributed) was immediately recognizable to a young reader as having a different, funnier style than the "house" style that had emerged.

But in 1987, as part of their big series of shakeups -- which included a bunch of new titles that failed -- Archie comics re-launched two of their most popular titles, Betty and Veronica and Jughead, with the same title but a new series (starting with a new issue # 1). DeCarlo continued to do the new B&V, up until the company ungratefully fired him and wrote him out of their history. But the new Jughead series was not drawn by Schwartz. He continued to do Jughead stories for the company, but he was no longer the primary Jughead artist. Maybe he was no longer able to do it on a regular basis, but I wouldn't be surprised if his look was considered too old-fashioned. Whatever the reason, that was the end of the last really first-rate series Archie ever did.

And with that, here is the article I should have posted earlier:



Jughead, the hamburger eating Riverdale High student of comic book fame, is up to his old tricks again. He has programmed the school's new robot teaching assistant to fetch French fries and hot dogs for his friends. Samm Schwartz looks up from the drawing board in his North Miami Beach home and smiles.

"You know it's not always easy being funny. It's a question of what's funny," said Schwartz, a 64-year-old cartoonist who has been sketching Jughead's antics with pencil and ink for nearly 40 years. "It's not so much me drawing funny pictures. I draw pictures of people doing funny things," said Schwartz.

His artwork -- glimpses of Archie, Betty, Veronica and the whole Riverdale High gang from Archie Comics -- has appeared in English, Spanish, French and Italian comic strips.

Drawing for a living isn't easy, Schwartz said. Like when he sits down at his drawing board and stares at a blank sheet of paper.

"You reach into the drawer and take out a mortgage bill, a phone bill or an electric bill and suddenly you're inspired," he said.

Schwartz "was good then and he's even better now," said fellow cartoonist Bob Bolling.

Bolling, of Miami Lakes, started drawing for Archie Comics 25 years ago. Schwartz was one of the first people he met.

Schwartz's artistic career began when he was a boy, drawing chalk caricatures of cowboys on the sidewalks in Brooklyn in the 1920s.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Project Administration paid for free art classes for him at neighborhood schools.

He also attended the New York University School of Architecture and Allied Arts, the National Academy of Art and Design and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

His parents told him he could never make a decent living as an artist.

"For a while, they were right," Schwartz said.

His first job was as an apprentice in one of New York's many fashion studios, drawing sketches of women's fashions for department stores.

"I was a glorified go-fer," he said.

He also got 60 cents for posing as a male fashion model.

Although the comic book craze began in the early 1920s, it didn't take off until 1938 and the beginning of World War II.

Comics were the most popular selling magazines then. The public's obsession with the pictured stories of heroes like Superman, Captain Marvel and Wee Willie Winkle helped fuel young Schwartz's passion for the art.

"People were hungry for entertaining reading. A lot of GIs read them, which is no reflection on their mentality," he said.

He took his sketches, pencils and ink and knocked on publishers' doors.

In 1942, he began drawing for M.L.J., which later became Archie Comics.

"I was just getting a toehold when I was drafted," he said.

For the next two years, Schwartz was a drill instructor, public relations specialist, visual training aide and radio and radar mechanic for the U.S. Air Force.

He was stationed in Bal Harbour for 19 months.

In his spare time, Schwartz made extra money drawing portraits of his buddies' girlfriends and wives.

After the war, he went back to Brooklyn and Archie.

He used to draw as well as write the scripts, but creating the stories was too strenuous.

"It's on your mind 24 hours a day. It's much easier for me to draw a person doing something than describe it. It got fatiguing," he said. "Afterward, I didn't have energy to draw."

Schwartz has lived in North Miami Beach since 1979. He said he enjoys being his own boss.

"You don't have to punch a time clock. You don't have to get dressed in the morning. I don't have to shave if I don't want to."

To wrap this up, here is a story from Schwartz's golden '70s/'80s period, a story that has haunted me ever since I read it as a child, even though -- then and now -- I could never tell you what the point of it is. Jughead is kidnapped by a cult whose leader wears a similar hat, has the legend "B.S." tattooed on his head, and whose God is named "Harold," and Schwartz plays the whole thing so deadpan that it really seems like this is just another irritating distraction for his favorite character.

The opening of the story also shows off another late Schwartz trademark: putting the credits in unusual places. Once he was allowed to include credits, he would frequently make them part of the scene, as he does here (and sometimes he'd turn them into one of his graffiti gags, calling himself "Good ol' Samm" or something like that). Click on a page to enlarge:

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Ira Brooker said...

Thanks for tracking me down, thanks for linking this, and thanks for writing this. You've captured exactly my feelings about Samm Schwartz. I daresay he's my favorite comics artist of all time. His work enthralls me as much today as it did when I was a kid.

That story you reprinted blew me clean away when I first found it in a digest 21 years ago. I thought immediately that this was the best Jughead story I'd ever read, and the years have borne that out. The concept is bizarre, the dialogue crackling and the artwork inimitable. I still quote, "That's quite a mouthful of life force!" to this day.

Keep on fighting this good fight. Deplorable conduct of current management be damned, it's high time the Archie canon ) got some recognition as the complex, multi-faceted body of artwork it is.

Devlin Thompson said...

I've got a letter from Schwartz that i received in 1985 that I'll try to dig out and scan for you when I can (it's currently in storage along with most of my library). It arrived right after I'd left for my freshman year of college, and my mother put it on my desk, but it got knocked off and fell down behind it, not to be found until about eight months later. Embarrassed by the long delay, I didn't write back, something that's bothered me for more than twenty years now. He was a good guy. And one heck of a cartoonist. I recently got an entire five-page story by him from circa '89 for under $25, presumably because it was mostly a Professor Flutesnoot story, without much face time for Juggie. But in some ways, that's even GREATER! And while it's not his slickest work, it's amazing how confident and seemingly effortless it is.