By Rob Lamberti.
Everyone knows Dan DeCarlo, even people who don’t know him.
He’s the artist whose style gave Riverdale, U.S.A., teenager Archie Andrews and his pals that iconic and definitive look that spanned more than four decades.
Archie, inspired by the Andy Hardy movies, first appeared in Pep Comics 22 in 1941 drawn by Bob Montana in a story written by Vic Bloom. Their character was so successful that MLJ Comics abandoned every other character, although there were a few incursions back into superhero comics that didn’t fire up anyone’s imaginations, and changed its corporate name, too, to Archie Comics five years after the Archie’s debut.
DeCarlo began working on Archie and the gang in the late ’50s and changed the look with his distinctive style. But prior to working at Archie, his familiar gleeful and graceful — if not curvy — look appeared in the pages of Timely and Atlas Comics, the precursors of Marvel Comics. As a freelancer, he drew for adult-oriented magazines where he excelled at racy humour, along with the major magazine titles of the era including The Saturday Evening Post.
He had also practiced his skill of drawing the pinup female form on bomber fuselages during the Second World War. At Timely, he was assigned to titles including Jeanie, Sherry the Showgirl, Homer the Happy Ghost and, as one of the medium’s masters of good girl art, pinup art and funny gags for the company’s full-sized humour magazines.
The comic industry stumbled in the 1950s and DeCarlo, who worked full-time at Timely, was let go. He continued to work freelance for Timely and others. DeCarlo is credited with reviving a tanking Millie the Model franchise, the longest Timely-Atlas-Marvel humour title. His work on Millie altered it into a successful venture that carried well into the ’70s.
DeCarlo also freelanced for Archie Comics, his first work on the franchise appearing in Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica 4 in 1952. He became the cover artist for Archie books and worked on the characters, introducing new ones into the Archie universe. He took over all titles as chief artist, with help from his two sons, including the daily and Sunday newspaper strips, after Montana died in 1975.DeCarlo married Josette Dumont while in Europe during the Second World War and that proved to be important in his comic career, as she became the inspiration for his Josie character. Dumont’s hairstyles and fashion sense were continuing sources of ideas as DeCarlo kept up with trends in the comics.
He also introduced Cheryl Blossom, and with George Gladir co-created Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
The idea of Josie and Pussycats was pitched to Archie bosses in 1961 and Josie, Melody and Pepper first appeared in Archie’s Pals ‘n’ Gals 23, which demands a $900 U.S. in Near Mint Minus, about $65 in Good. There is a 35-cent Canadian variant of the issue, which may command a premium due to a smaller print run.
Those characters would set the stage for a bitter legal battle that occurred too often in the comics business: ownership rights to character creations. It was one thing to be paid for the artwork, but losing out on potential royalties when characters are turned into toys, movie characters and other items in spinoff markets often caused the acrimonious relationships between comic book companies and their artists.
DeCarlo stayed with MLJ for more than 40 years until their relationship ended in 2000 and capped with a 2001 lawsuit and subsequent counter claims over the creative ownership of, among others, Josie and the Pussycats, which was slated in 2001 to be a live-action movie for Universal Studios.
While he was named creator of the character in the movie’s titles, he lost the copyright battle over his characters, was considered a work-for-hire and had waited too long to make any claim, according to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He had been compensated with a page flat rate and certain royalties. That left him angry and after 43 years at Archie, the award-winning artist did some work for DC Comics and on the Simpson’s comic published by Bongo Comics before he died in late 2001 at the age of 82.
His unique style continued for sometime after he left but in the past decade or so, Archie and company has been undergoing another facelift: new artists, new story lines, new ideas, and new readership, all hallmarks of a new time.
The market values of Archie comics is strained by nostalgia and resistant collectors who at times seem reluctant to dole out high prices for the books they remember as strictly a fun read. Superheroes command the collectable market, pushing books like Archie into the narrow markets where only a few, in comparison, hardcore fans lurk.
There are exceptions of course. The key Montana Archie books command respect in the hero-driven market, and while others by DeCarlo in the Archie series have significant value in the Overstreet Guide, the problem is — and I think this is also true for Classics Illustrated and other funny books like Sad Sack — many collectors don’t see the title as a major investment but one geared to the young children’s market.
That’s a shame. Archie wasn’t risqué, unlike some of his work in other publications, as he was definitely a master of the pin-up. But Archie is a significant part of DeCarlo’s body of work, and it is spectacular. It’s becoming more so as Archie gets a modern makeover with far more serious storylines.