Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Talking Owls, River Rats, and a Wolf Named Kanyook

I discovered some interesting comics and contributions during last year's bout of Archie Comics research, but one of my favorite discoveries was a run of comics I actually remembered reading as a kid: Bob Bolling's two-year run as the writer and artist on Archie and Me, from issue # 141 through issue # 152. Since today is Bolling's 82nd birthday, I thought I'd write a bit about this run, probably his best contribution to the regular Archie comics and one of the more personal, idiosyncratic creator runs of the '80s.

The background is this: Archie and Me was a title launched in the '60s, and the "Me" was Mr. Weatherbee; all the stories had Weatherbee in them and were mostly about his relationship with Archie. It was one of the titles that Bolling was assigned to after he was forcibly removed from his own creation, Little Archie; he drew several issues in the mid-'60s, though from Frank Doyle's scripts, not his own. From the late '60s through the early '70s, the title was mostly written and drawn by the late Joe Edwards (creator of Li'l Jinx), who tried to do longer and more sentimental stories than you'd find in the other books; and then Al Hartley did some that were unbelievably preachy even by his standards. By the late '70s, though, the book became one of many titles that was just an "inventory" book: it had no style or consistent artist of its own, and the editors would just fill it up with four stories that happened to feature Mr. Weatherbee.

This continued up until 1982, when the Archie company contracted heavily (the collapse of the newsstand and subscription markets threatened to kill them off). All their titles were changed to bi-monthlies; many of their artists were temporarily laid off, and when they started producing new stories after several months of getting by mostly on inventory, they were determined to try and make the comics a little more relevant and hip. (I said a little.) This was the period when they switched back to the larger number of panels they'd used in the '50s and early '60s -- trying to "give the kids more for their money," as editor Victor Gorelick put it -- introduced new characters like Cheryl and Jason Blossom, and gave a makeover to a number of their lower-selling titles.

Bolling was originally assigned to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, with a mandate to include more fantasy and adventure elements rather than the humdrum domestic comedy stuff. He produced some excellent stories in this vein, but the title was canceled soon after he started, and most of the stories were burned off in other comics. Little Archie had also been canceled as a regular title (though Bolling and Dexter Taylor would continue to do stories for the digests and special issues), so Bolling wound up being given Archie and Me as his regular beat, writing and drawing an issue every two months (while also illustrating other people's scripts for the other comics).

It was his upcoming work on Archie and Me that Bolling was talking about in 1983 when he told an interviewer that he was "trying to bring Archie into today" and "give him some problems to wrestle with." Because this was Archie comics, that didn't really mean anything big or shocking, and Archie remained the good all-American boy who always does the right thing. But in many ways, Bolling's Archie and Me stories were different from anything the company had done. The only rule they followed was that Weatherbee was in every one of them (though he plays only a small part in a few).

The look was different: instead of the bright, light style of the usual Archie comic, these stories were filled with melancholy shadows, characters seen from a distance, and very specific evocations of nature, the seasons, and the times of day. The distinctive feel of all these stories comes from the fact that Bolling is usually quite specific about when a scene is taking place: many comics have just "day" and "night," but Bolling tried to give a different look to dawn, dusk, the time you walk to school and the time you walk home.

The range of subject matter also broadened. As most of you know, regular Archie comics basically had two modes: comedy and adventure. The comedy stories were in the tradition created by Bob Montana, and the adventure stories were the very melodramatic, slightly tongue-in-cheek kind created by Bob White and Sy Reit for Life With Archie. But most of Bolling's Archie and Me stories don't fit into either category. There are adventure stories, but much more serious and earnest than the Life With Archie material. And there are stories that play more as straight drama, like "The New Teacher" (about a meek teacher who turns out to be haunted by his failure to save his buddies in Vietnam) or "Heart's Desire" (Archie buys an obviously stolen tape player, and feels so guilty about it that he can't enjoy anything). There's even a sad, quiet Twilight Zone-ish story about a ghostly girl Archie meets, called "Jogger Jill." And yeah, there are a few regular slapstick stories mixed in there.

All of this is not much like a normal Archie comic, but it is a lot like Bolling's Little Archie, and that's what this run basically was: for the first time, Bolling was doing Archie stories that exist in the same world -- tonally and continuity-wise -- as his own Little Archie creation. The stories are flooded with references and characters that Bolling created in Little Archie and that no one used except him. Spotty, Little Archie's dog, becomes big Archie's dog as well. A guy who tries to rob the school is Chester Punkett, formerly Mad Doctor Doom's teenage assistant. In a Little Archie mystery story, Betty's brother Chick went to work for Kindly Mother Kelly's bakery, run by the unseen but rapacious and evil capitalist Kindly Mother Kelly; when Archie goes to get a job with her in Archie and Me, she's become "Kindly Mother Kelly Industries," with her corporate headquarters guarded by vicious dog. Even the throwaway references are tied into things that only regular Bolling readers would remember; when we see one of the places Malcolm Meeks worked after leaving the army, it's "Dreggs" gas stations, a Lodge-owned gas chain that Bolling created in the late '60s.

Partly because its references only existed within Bolling's stories (though some of them have been taken up by other writers/artists since then), this entire run sort of exists in its own world. Another reason is that the run has its own separate continuity. Archie comics didn't usually have continuity (and they didn't need them; humor comics, like cartoons, regenerate in every story), but Bolling's Archie and Me, while consisting of self-contained stories, does have some continuing threads: Archie gets his wrist broken in one story, spends the next story in a sling, and his recovery becomes a major plot point in the next issue.

And many of the characters act differently than they normally would outside Bolling's world. Archie is much more like Little Archie, the earnest kid who frequently gets into trouble but is incredibly plucky in a crisis; the love-triangle stuff is almost absent here. Jughead is almost totally absent, appearing only in cameos and getting like one line in the entire run. (Jughead didn't appear that much in Bolling's Little Archie stories either; I don't think he's really that into the character.) Instead, Reggie becomes Archie's closest friend, and while they're still in competition over spots on sports teams and the like, it's more of a competition between two friends who have different personalities; this Reggie is Archie's more self-confident, slightly cooler pal.

Given the freedom to turn this comic into his own private world, Bolling responded with the best writing he had ever done for "big" Archie stories. Normally he would over-indulge in bad puns (perhaps a defense mechanism against accusations that his scripts didn't have enough hard jokes), and there are a few stories early in the run that do just that. But for the most part, the punning is kept to a minimum and he turns in the kind of work he had done on his Little Archie stories of 1956-1965 and 1979-81: excellent characterization, sentimentality that doesn't go over the top, and a really personal way of looking at the world, nature and fate ("I knew this tree was here for a purpose," Archie says when he uses a tree to save a bus full of students -- Bolling's stories have no religious content, but they have a lot of quasi-mystical content). There are also some strange framing devices, reminiscent of the talking toys in his classic "The Long Walk." One story appears to be narrated by the wind; another is quite literally narrated by a talking owl (who had actually appeared, though not talking, in some Bolling-drawn stories from the '70s).

Though Bolling probably inked the first couple of issues in this run, most of the others were inked by Chic Stone. Stone, who had been one of the best inkers for Jack Kirby, was working as Harry Lucey's inker when Lucey had to retire; this gave him the chance to draw Archie, but his work as a penciller was frankly awful. (Stone's pencilling on Archie, I mean, was awful; some of his other stuff is better.) As an inker, though, he was tops, and he's one of the few inkers Bolling ever had who doesn't diffuse the rough charm of the pencils.

The last story in this run appeared in Archie and Me # 152. After that, the title went back to a grab-bag inventory title for a few years (Bolling drew but didn't write a few stories in this period) and then was canceled. I don't know how well the Bolling run did, though lasting two years is pretty good considering the Archie company's tendency to get cold feet about everything. I remember as a child being very impressed by "Jogger Jill," but puzzled by this story, "Blue Saturday": I wondered why Spotty was there when I'd never seen him in any of the big Archie stories, where Jughead was, since when Mr. Svenson had a cat named "Loki" (Bolling, who adores cats, likes to give them to any character who could plausibly have one) and why the whole thing gave such a sad, melancholy -- that word again, I know, but it always seems to fit with Bolling -- air to what was otherwise just a normal Archie story. I don't know if my reaction was typical, but I'm not sure if we were ready to see Archie as a regular bittersweet coming-of-age tale.

(An added reference to an earlier story: "Any room in there for me?" is what Archie's father said to Spotty in a Bolling Little Archie.)

If I had to pick a favorite story from Bolling's Archie and Me, it would be the issue-length Lonely Lobo, about Archie's encounter with a wolf at Mr. Lodge's mountain retreat (which, again, is cross-referenced with a Little Archie story). It's got the obsession with nature and the animal world, and Bolling's objective attitude toward the cruelty and danger inherent in that world; it's got a sad but semi-mystical ending that hints at something much bigger than the story we just read.



Tom said...

Great post! I really enjoy it when you talk about Archie Comics and the artists that made them! More please!

Aaron Long said...

I'm a big fan of old Archie comics, and I also really enjoy your Archie research/analysis posts. They're really informative and interesting. I hope you do some more soon!

bobby said...

Hello..very nice post, i enjoy reading this post. I`m very like read comics. I will follow your post.

Snodge said...

Can I just say...WOW. I love Bolling's work, too. One of my favourite stories was the Civil Wart history lesson that turned into a time-travelling epic.
Terrific posting. I treasure my Little Archie Digests, and the few Archie and Me stories I have seen over the years!