The big news of the week is that DC is planning a massive relaunch of its characters. Is something similar in the works at Archie Comics?
Before you scoff, take a look at Archie & Friends Night at the Comic Shop, which came out in trade paperback form last month. (There’s a short preview at the link.) The plot is simplicity itself: A meteor hits Pep Comics, the local comics shop, and somehow this causes a ton of vintage comics characters to come to life, escape from their pages, and wreak havoc all over Riverdale. If this were one or two characters, it might work, but with about 30 or so, it just ends up as a jumble, with the regular cast interacting with a different character in every panel.
What is interesting about this book, however, is that all the characters once appeared in actual comics published by MLJ Comics, which later became Archie Comics, in the 1940s and 1950s. The back of the book includes a guide to the “MLJ Universe,” and what a universe it is! The Archie brass have already reached into their IP vault and brushed the cobwebs off some of their old characters: They relaunched Li’l Jinx as the teenaged Jinx, they plan to give hard-boiled detective Sam Hill his own graphic novel line, and they occasionally sneak Cosmo the Merry Martian into a cover. Could more be on the way?
The difference between MLJ and DC, of course, is that the MLJ characters have been out of the public eye for a while, and some of them look their age. Still, here are a few of the characters I’d like to see come back to life, along with suggestions about how to do it.
Gloomy Gus, the Homeless Ghost: It’s hard to imagine this as a humor comic: The main character is dead, but he’s not really a ghost, because he can’t find a body to be his host. “Gus has linked himself to several newly-deceased folks or folks who look like they’re about to expire, but each time he takes over their bodies he gets tangled in such mishaps that his soul transference never sticks.” Comedy gold! The writeup describes the humor in this comic as “surreal,” and frankly, I don’t see how it wouldn’t be. (Here’s a whole Gloomy Gus story if you want to see for yourself, along with a bit of background on the artist.) Since the wandering soul is a topic that comes up a lot in manga, if I were going to redo it, I would let an American manga artist like Nina Matsumoto (Yokaiden) or Svetlana Chmakova (Nightschool) have a crack at it.
Senor Banana: This comic has so many potentially offensive elements that I really have to salute MLJ for even admitting that it ever existed. Senor Banana and his sidekick Stencho Odoro are a humor team in the manner of Laurel & Hardy, or maybe Cheech & Chong—I’d say it’s closer to the latter. “Along the way they must contend with Stencho’s gargantuan wife, whose temper is as big as her waistline, Pepe le Tomahto, her jealous, dagger hurling boyfriend and Strawberry, the easily agitated and stubborn burro who likes work even less than Banana and Stencho!” If you cleaned up this comic, there would be nothing left, so obviously the way to go is to embrace the transgressiveness and turn it into brilliant satire—you know, like Cheech & Chong. (Original Senor Banana art from the Live Auctioneers site.)
Dotty and Ditto: Created by Bill Woggon, who also was the mind behind Katy Keene, Dotty and Ditto features a smart girl who loves nature and exploring the forest with her Native American boyfriend. She has a pet mountain lion, but her closest companion is her parrot, Ditto. Here’s a sample; I actually think this would update pretty well with minimal tinkering, and it would be great to see someone with an expressive style like Frank Cammuso or Eric Wight have some fun with it.
The Adventures of Pipsqueak: A funny-kids comic that stands out from the rest because of its look—it was drawn by Walt Lardner, who was also an editorial cartoonist. Given the unique art and the historical importance of the creator, the logical approach would be to compile the original comics into a nice archive edition, preferably including an interview with the artist (who is still alive); I’d tap Craig Yoe for that job.
And then there are the guys:
Young Dr. Masters, a progressive physician (his patients distrust him because he follows new scientific developments rather than the traditional cures they are used to) whose medical skills always seem to be required in dangerous situations—a wounded robber in a warehouse, an injured construction worker dangling from a girder, that sort of thing.
Kardak the Mystic, a magician who affects a turban and a tux and travels with both his fiancée and his enormous and immensely strong servant, Balthar. Kardak is particularly concerned with those who use magic powers for sinister purposes,” which doesn’t strike me as being a very large group outside of old comics. He bears a passing resemblance to Johnny Depp, and I would pay real money to see a Kardak movie with Depp in the cast. Hollywood, are you listening? (Image from the DC Comics Database.)
Fu Chang, International Detective, definitely partakes of some ethnic stereotypes, but as Gene Luen Yang explains, he blends East and West in an interesting way. I’d love to see Yang bring Fu Chang (and his girlfriend, improbably named May Ting) back to life in modern-day San Francisco.
Bentley of Scotland Yard, just another British detective, really, except that he has a specialty: Murders that are disguised to look like supernatural events. “Like in Scooby-Doo?” you might be saying, but I’d prefer to think it’s more like Jonathan Creek. Pappy’s Golden Age has a full Bentley story up so you can investigate for yourself.
There are some others—Captain Sprocket, Super Snail, Catfish Joe—but these are the cream of the crop, a set of characters who could keep writers, artists, and licensors busy for years. If I were at Archie, I’d start by bringing back those vintage Pep Comics, digitally in print, so readers could see how the characters got their start, then update them, like they are planning to do with Cosmo and Sam Hill.
The best part: Since most of these comics were episodic, there’s no continuity for readers to argue about—you could just jump right in and start creating new stories. It seems like they just had their audition in Night at the Comics Shop, but I’d love to see these guys stretch their legs a bit.
Time for a