Monday, July 20, 2009

Re-Stating The Premise For Comedy

My recent Archie comics kick, for which I apologize not a bit, taught me a lot more about the company's history and work in its best years. One thing about going through old comics, plus the complete '70s runs of Jughead, Archie and Betty and Veronica collected on DVD-ROM (the Jughead DVD-ROM, virtually all Samm Schwartz in his prime, is a must-get; the first half of the Archie DVD-ROM is almost all Harry Lucey, though the quality falls off sharply after he retires), is that it's a bit of a different experience from reading the digests as a child, and not just because, well, I'm not a child. The digests collected together material from different eras, characters and series, with little bits of everything; there was a house style but there was variety there. The main comics titles, on the other hand, tend to have four stories of the same length, same basic structure, and same exact character. This means that there is no variety within an issue (unless it's one of the grab-bag titles like Laugh or Pep), and any interest has to come from the variations on the rigid, limited story formulas of each character.

One of the reasons Frank Doyle was a great comics writer is that he knew more tricks than just about anybody for making the same plot a little different each time. Again I state as always: most Archie comics had no credits until the '80s and any identification of writing credits is pure guesswork, but it's not that hard to spot individual writing styles by checking them against later, credited work, and Doyle is the likeliest (not the only possible, but likeliest) guess for the scripts that follow. Particularly since they don't have cheesy rhyming titles or clumsy dialogue. But if it turns out somebody else wrote one or more of these stories, that person was a first-class comics writer -- meaning probably not George Gladir.

And one thing I find interesting is that a surprising number of Archie stories take the simple approach of re-stating the premise: telling us who the characters are and what they want, and letting that be the story. The interest and the humor comes from the slightly new angle on the totally familiar setup.

The showiest examples are the stories that Doyle and Dan DeCarlo did entirely in captions, like "The Archie Group," which re-caps the main relationships in flowery, elaborate captions and weird signs. But the main example I'm going to use here is one of my very favorite Archie six-pagers, "If You Knew Archie Like I Know Archie" from Pep # 139 in 1960. Written (probably) by Frank Doyle and drawn by Harry Lucey, it re-states most of the established character relationships; it doesn't really tell us anything new, because there is nothing new to tell (there hasn't been anything new about any of these characters since the '40s), but it does find a different visual and thematic way of re-telling what we know. And the punchline is still great because it can be interpreted in two ways. As a child reading it for the first time, I thought maybe that was the way Archie really looks and we were seeing him in a distorted way. But then I realized that the more likely explanation is that he sees himself in a distorted way. The point is that the whole story was like a little introduction to the idea, stated in the famous Robert Burns quote at the beginning, that your opinions influence what you see.

This next story, "Triple Threat" from Betty and Veronica # 190, is very likely by Doyle -- a dead giveaway is the word "EEP!" which he didn't create but kind of made his own. (Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein thought they'd made the word up when they used it on The Simpsons, only to realize they'd stolen it from Archie; what they didn't know is that they'd specifically gotten it from Doyle, whose characters say "EEP!" to mean a lot of different things.) But I don't know about the art; it sometimes looks like DeCarlo, sometimes like Stan Goldberg, and doesn't fully look like either one. Maybe they collaborated.

Because the art isn't up to the best standard, this isn't a great story, but it stuck in my mind since childhood as an example of the way the better-written stories could look at the formula in a different way. This story doesn't break the fourth wall; it still comes off as a "meta-story" because it takes a very typical plot (they're all very typical plots; that's why smart writers don't spend too much time on them) and looks at it from an outsider's perspective. The story introduces three kids who are, as little kids tend to be in Doyle's stories, wise-asses who make fun of the dumb, over-emotional teenagers. They basically analyze the story and main characters the way we do, predicting their behavior and the way their petty obsessions will drive them ("Reggie will use water, because that was the weapon that was his undoing"). Again, it's an analysis of what we already know, used to provide a fresh slant on characters who can't change.

And finally, there's this story from 1969, drawn by Harry Lucey, still great though with very different clothes to draw. (Or not draw, in the case of the girls.) This is one of those straight-up fourth-wall-breaking stories they did a couple of times a year -- the most famous is "The Line," from the previous year, but it also contains a bit of premise re-statement in that it's about the idea that any new person in Riverdale, if the characters actually got to know him, would irrevocably shake up and destroy the premise.

There may also be an extra bit of meta-humor here because Archie had a truly disastrous record, throughout the '60s, of introducing new characters into the main comic. Except for bringing in Big Ethel (designed by Samm Schwartz) as a foil for Jughead and sometimes the other main characters, they really hadn't come up with anybody who could hold the stage with the regulars. (This would change a bit in the '70s, mostly in the form of token ethnic characters.) Part of the joke of this story is that the Riverdale regulars are resistant -- often violently -- to letting any new characters into their world.


Kenny said...

Burn! Gladir is the worst, and has only gotten more intolerable over the years.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I wouldn't say Gladir is the worst, either for Archie or Cracked where he was head writer for many years (while prolifically freelancing for Archie). But he's a comic-book writer who always seem to write as if his audience isn't very smart, especially when it comes to dialogue.

When Samm Schwartz was first allowed to include credits, he sometimes included a credit on Gladir's stories like: "Story by George Gladir, revised by Samm Schwartz" or "additional dialogue by Samm Schwartz." He stopped including that credit (which is not fair to the writer even if it's true), but if Schwartz re-wrote Gladir's dialogue it would explain why Gladir's Jughead stories are sometimes funny.

They've had worse stories than that. The guy who wrote a lot of stories in the late '60s and early '70s -- I've never been able to find out his name -- wasn't bad on the "serious" stories (this same guy did all the ones about Vietnam and protesting and racism and the infamous "Betty and Archie in the motel" one) but his comedy stories could be excruciating.

Devlin Thompson said...

What do you think of Dick Malmgren as a writer? His short gas are just the worst, but I kinda like his THAT WILKIN BOY and MAD HOUSE GLADS longer stories, perhaps because his distinctive mannerisms seem less jarring when not applied to the Riverdale gang. I'd really be interested to know if he himself were as crabby and prone to litanies of complaints as his writing seems to suggest. For better or worse, he's got one of Archie's most recognizeable "voices". Also, how do you feel about Bob White?

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Devlin: Was Malmgren the guy who wrote the Madhouse Glads stories like this one, where everybody was arguing about serious issues in a (as you say) cranky way? Because if so, he may be the guy I'm thinking of in my previous comment, when I talk of the guy who wrote the long, serious stories in the early '70s, who had extremely distinctive writing mannerisms (including a tendency to write dialogue with no bolded words at all, unusual for Archie).

I always thought Malmgren was the likeliest candidate because a) One of those stories refers to "Malmgren's department store" and b) when he started writing/drawing stories with credit in the '80s, he used some lines that this writer had also used in the early '70s. But I really don't know.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

As for Bob White, I like Cosmo the Merry Martian quite a lot, and his Life With Archie adventure stories are certainly exciting and different from the rest of the company's output. I do think he'd gotten kind of stiff by the mid-'60s; the Pureheart the Powerful stuff could have used some wilder drawing, as could the insane Monkees-influenced "Archies" stories that Doyle wrote for him (the "mad mod" ones).

Joe Edwards in his Alter Ego interview wasn't fond of White, saying he tried to come up with a system to get everybody at the company to draw the same way. (He said John Goldwater backed down when the artists threatened to quit and go work for Stan Lee, who hadn't actually offered them anything.) But he does say that Samm Schwartz was a friend of White's, and IIRC Bob Bolling was an admirer of White (and the guy who carried on White's style of doing adventure material with the Archie characters).

Snodge said...

One of my favourite stories is "Stranger in Town"; I love the way Harry Lucey draws hands and legs in movement. The "plip" sound effect is another bit of genuis I remember clearly from reading this in a digest as a kid.

Snodge said...

Another new character I would have liked to see more of was Adam the alien. He was intersesting for the limited number of times I read stories where he was featured.