As I’ve written here on earlier occasions (and even if I hadn’t, a quick scan of the blog’s archives would clue you in), I didn’t pick up many humor comic titles in my formative years as a comic book fan, a half-century and more ago. The most notable exception to that rule was Mad, which, as I explained some weeks back, I probably didn’t consider to be a “comic book” in quite the same way that I did, say, Flash, or Daredevil. Oh, there was that one issue of Not Brand Echh, of course, as well as several issues of The Fox and the Crow (aka Stanley and His Monster) — and even a Dennis the Menace comic or two, fairly early on, which I opted not to write about here. But that was it, as far as “funny” funnybooks went. Needless to say, I completely eschewed the teen humor genre — indeed, the only time I can remember even being vaguely interested in checking out the Archie Comics line circa 1965-1967 was when the company briefly jumped on the superhero fad bandwagon, with their flagship character transformed into Pureheart the Powerful and so forth. Even then, I didn’t bite.
So, why in the world would my twelve-year-old self, after more than four years of enjoying DC comics (almost all of which were in the superhero genre) and close to two years of the same with Marvel (ditto) — pretty much to the exclusion of anything else (save, naturally, for Mad) — suddenly succumb to the impulse to buy an Archie title?
I’m going to blame it on the sugar rush.
More specifically, I’m going to blame it on the rush of endorphins to the pleasure centers of my brain that was generated by the act of listening to the Archies‘ hit single “Sugar, Sugar” — a song that ruled the radio airwaves in the late summer and fall of 1969, taking the number one spot on Billboard‘s Hot 100 on September 20th and remaining there for four weeks, before ultimately going on to become the number one song of the year.
Just in case you’ve never heard this sublime apotheosis of the bubblegum pop subgenre (as difficult as that is for me even to imagine), you can have a listen (and, if you dare, even a look) below:
(Y’know, you could make an argument that the clip above, which not only ran on the Archie weekly television cartoon but was also apparently featured on The Ed Sullivan Show, was a pioneering work of the music video form. You could also describe it as inane, crudely animated dreck, which no one could possibly enjoy watching today save through glasses fully saturated, rather than merely tinted, by rosy nostalgia. I wouldn’t argue with you either way.)
Yes, 1969 was the year of the Archies — and, by extension, the whole “Archie” brand. But the pop-cultural ascendancy of the Riverdale crew had actually begun a year before, when The Archie Show made its debut on the morning of September 14, 1968. The Filmation-produced program had a couple of things to help it stand out from the other Saturday morning animated fare of the time — for one, it wasn’t an adventure-oriented show; and for another, it featured original songs in every episode.* And you could even buy those songs! The Archies’ first, self-titled album came out sometime in 1968, and I did indeed purchase the thing — in fact, it was probably one of the first long-players I bought for myself. At the time, I was such a young sophisticate that I even recognized the name of the record’s “music supervisor”, Don Kirshner, as that of the guy who’d occupied the same role for another early musical purchase of mine, 1967’s More of the Monkees — he’s even written the back-cover liner notes for both albums — and since the Monkees were great, it stood to reason that the Archies must be good, too. (Of course, I wouldn’t learn until years later that Kirshner came to the Archies project after being fired from his gig with the Prefab Four.) And to be honest, my younger self wasn’t completely off base with that early assessment. As with the Monkees’ earliest records, the Archies’ music might have been prefabricated corporate product, but it was unquestionably professional prefabricated corporate product. No, none of it makes for what you’d call essential listening in 2019; but a few of the tunes (especially “Sugar, Sugar”) still hold up fairly well, in my opinion.
Anyway, it was probably all but inevitable that I’d eventually give Archie a shot in his original medium of comic books (a medium, incidentally, in which Archie was the best-selling title of the year in 1969, beating out its closest rival, Superman, by a comfortable margin). That still leaves the question of why I chose this particular comic — Archie Giant Series Magazine #169, aka Archie’s Christmas Love-In — over any of the other Archies that must have also been available on the spinner rack that day. According to The Newsstand at the Mike’s Amazing World website, there were seventeen additional Archie Comics publications that hit the stands the same month as AGSM #169 — including, interestingly enough, three additional issues of Archie Giant Series Magazine itself, two of which even shared #169’s Christmas theme. Even if these weren’t all on the racks at the same time, there must have been a variety for twelve-year-old me to choose from.
So why this one? Well, it might in fact have had something to do with seasonal spirit. Although AGSM #169 came out on October 28, 1969 according to MAW (just in time for Halloween!), I feel pretty certain that it, as well as Archie Comics’ other holiday-themed giants, would have remained on the stands for quite a while thereafter; if that’s true, then it’s entirely possible that I actually picked it up in November, or even December. As for why I opted for Archie’s Christmas Love-In over Archie’s Christmas Stocking, or the Betty and Veronica Christmas Spectacular? Well, maybe those two had already sold out. But even if they hadn’t, I still might have opted to forego both of those books, with their Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle-themed covers, for the single holiday special whose cover, while it definitely focused on “love”, was decidedly not spotlighting affection of the romantic persuasion, but rather the universal, “brotherly” love frequently associated with “the Christmas spirit”.
Especially when that theme was expressed in such a, shall we say, contemporary fashion. Santa Claus as a hippy-dippy, flower-power, peace-and-love guru? A Christmas “love-in”?
According to Wikipedia, a “love-in” is (and was) “a peaceful public gathering focused on meditation, love, music, sex and/or use of psychedelic drugs.” (I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the Archie brass had only the first three of those five focus areas in mind — and probably only the second and third ones, when you get right down to it.) Wikipedia also notes that the specific term “love-in” was coined in 1967 by Peter Bergman, a member of the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe (and though that’s probably accurate, I believe it’s worth pointing out that this term, like “be-in”, “teach-in” and all the other “-ins” of the Sixties, was ultimately derived from the “sit-in” — the nonviolent protest technique that emerged from the Civil Rights Movement in the Fifties). That means that it was still a relatively new term when Archie Comics picked up on it in 1969 — and it was definitely associated with the youth counterculture of the time.
In Twelve-Cent Archie (rev. ed., Rutgers University Press, 2015) a book-length study of the Archie comics published during the period that regular-size issues sold for, yes, twelve cents (i.e.,late1961 through mid-1969), scholar Bart Beaty writes:
Archie comics had a vexed relationship with the youth culture of the 1960s. The conservative worldview of Riverdale was an awkward fit for the increasing political militancy of campus culture. Since Riverdale existed on a planet where there was no Vietnam War and no civil rights struggle, the issues that motivated American youth in the Age of Aquarius were simply unable to penetrate its borders. Riverdale was squaresville, and it liked it that way…
Archie comics could handle the consumer side of 1960s youth culture — the record collecting, the fashions imported from Carnaby Street — but they were at a total loss to deal with unconventional lifestyles in any way other than diminishing them… In Archie’s world, authenticity resided comfortably in middle-class conformity, not in its rejection.
Beaty cites a number of specific examples from a variety of Archie comics to convincingly make his case. But, of course, the period covered by his study ends in May, 1969, the month in which most of Archie’s 12-cent titles went up to 15 cents. Five months later, in October, 1969, the company’s attitude toward hippiedom seems to have softened at least to the point that they could now present certain broad ideas reflective of the counterculture — gurus, flower power, the “love-in” concept itself — in a benign context. But did any of that newly accepting attitude heralded by the cover permeate through to the comic’s interior content?
Let’s take a look and find out, shall we?
But before we get into the first story in Archie Giant Series Magazine #169, I’d like to address, at least briefly, the issue of creator credits. During this era, as for most of the company’s history, the artists and writers who produced the content for Archie comics worked largely in anonymity. Though much of this vintage material has since been credited — either by virtue of the company’s providing credits retroactively when reprinting old stories in new editions, or by dint of the efforts of fans and other researchers, the fruits of whose toil can be found in the Grand Comics Database and other projects — much of it still remains anonymous.
Unfortunately, that’s the case with most of the work we’ll be looking at today, from AGSM #169’s cover on through the 67 pages that follow. Of the twelve stories in this issue, the GCD only offers even partial credits for a mere four of them. And so, while I hate not being able to attribute the majority of these stories to either their writers or their artists — especially since these might include some of Archie’s best-known and most well-respected creators ever (e.g., Bob Bolling, Dan DeCarlo, Frank Doyle, George Gladir, Harry Lucey, and Samm Schwartz, all of whom were working regularly for Archie at this time) — that’s the hand I’ve been dealt. (Although if there are any Archie experts out there who’d care to offer more information, or to simply speculate wildly about who might have done what, I invite you to weigh in in the comments.)
This issue’s first story (and I should probably note here that although AGSM frequently featured at least a few reprints, all the material in #169 appears to be new) stars the series’ (and publisher’s) namesake, Archie Andrews, along with a couple of his usual co-stars (and, of course, fellow members of the Archies musical group — on TV, at least) Veronica Lodge and Betty Cooper. Also appearing are the mischievous Dick and Dan Hall, who, for all I know, were created specifically for this story and never appeared again.
The plot thickens as two more members of Archie’s supporting cast, Midge Klump and Marmaduke “Moose” Mason, show up to help out with the decorations, and the Halls plot to trap Midge under some mistletoe. (Wow, these guys must be new in town.)
As anyone who’s ever read a vintage Archie comic could have told the twins, “Big Moose” doesn’t take this development very well:
That’s the sort of finale that it’s easy to imagine the writer coming up with first, and then working backwards from there to flesh out their story.
And, as I’m sure you’ll have noticed, there’s nothing resembling a “love-in” happening in this five-pager. It’s simply an ordinary seasonal Archie tale, that one can imagine slotting into the same month’s AGSM #167 (Archie’s Christmas Stocking) as well as it does here.
The same could be said for the next three features as well, which are all one-page gag strips — two of which star Archie, and the third of which features Li’l Jinx, of whom we’ll have more to say later. But the multi-page story that immediately follows them is something different:
By presenting Archie as a sort of “flower child” — one without long hair or love beads, sure, but still, close enough — this story gives us the first glimmer of the “hippie-positive” theme that we’ve seen since the cover.
But before we proceed to find out what will befall Archie’s regular foil Reggie Mantle as a result of his disdain for Archie’s message of love, I’d like us to pause for a moment to consider the informational message at the bottom of the story’s first page. I’m pretty sure that this earnest appeal to readers to look for the “Archie Series” trademark on any comic book they’re thinking about buying (a trademark which, ironically enough, doesn’t appear on this very issue, at least not in the same form) went right over my head in 1969; in 2019, however, I understand why the powers-that-were at Archie felt compelled to include it. That’s because I’m now aware that, in 1967 and 1968, several of Archie’s competitors, including both DC and Marvel, adopted a new trade dress for a number of their own titles that, well, made them look a whole lot like Archie comics. Supposedly, the Archie brass was incensed enough to demand that at least one of these publishers, DC Comics, cease and desist immediately. As Leave It to Binky editor Joe Orlando would remember three decades later for Comic Book Artist‘s Jon B. Cooke:
It got to the point where the publisher of Archie called up [DC’s publisher Jack] Leibowitz and started yelling, “You tell Orlando to stop using our red and blue in the Binky logo!” [laughs] I laughed when Carmine [Infantino, DC’s editorial director] told me about that call, thinking what a great Supreme Court case it would make: “Archie Comics sues DC Comics over the use of the colors red and blue.”
That might indeed have made for an interesting Supreme Court case; things never got anywhere near that far, however, as DC pretty quickly backed off (at least somewhat) from their slavish aping of Archie’s trade dress.**
Enough about all that, though. Let’s head back now to Riverdale High, where, having taken a Scrooge-like stance regarding Archie’s flower-power project, young Mr. Milton first makes a quick stop at his locker, and then…
But Betty and Veronica are nonplused when Reggie’s response to their commendations is to guffaw with laughter…
Almost before the two girls can turn on their heels and stride away in disgust, Reggie sees the error of his ways:
GAK! “Brother Reg” promptly hauls ass to the principal’s office — where, thankfully, Mr. Waldo Weatherbee has yet to sample the “enhanced” candy:
I’m pretty sure my twelve-year-old self thought this story was hilarious, and I still think it’s pretty funny — although today I’m probably a bit more inclined than the younger me was to ponder what it says about the moral universe of Archie comics that though Reggie ultimately chooses to do the right thing, he still must endure great suffering. Maybe Reg’s just built up so much bad karma after decades of being a capital-J jerk that one good deed can’t get him off the hook? Or, maybe I’m just overthinking a half-century old Archie 6-pager. Yeah, that’s probably it.
The next story spotlights a colleague of Mr. Weatherbee’s on the Riverdale High faculty, Miss Geraldine Grundy. While Archie comics in general may focus on their teen cast members, it’s interesting to note that out of the eight multi-page stories in this issue, a full five of them feature one of Riverdale’s adult characters as the lead.
Once Betty and Veronica have moved on, however, Miss Grundy reconsiders. She ends up purchasing one of those “young modern dresses” after all, and then heads to a beauty parlor, where she requests “the works” from a dapper gentleman named “Mr. Phylis” (gee, d’you think he’s supposed to be gay or something?). The next day, she heads to Riverdale High dressed for the class party:
Afraid that she’ll become “the laughing stock of the whole school”, Miss Grundy hides in a broom closet — though not before she’s been spotted by Archie, Betty, and Veronica:
This is another tale that doesn’t really have anything to do with the issue’s “love” theme (unless you count Mr. Weatherbee’s sudden amorous interest in Miss Grundy — which, of course, would never be picked up on in any later story).
That’s not quite the case with the next story, however, which also happens to be the first in the issue for which the Grand Comics Database provides any credits. According to the GCD, “Love Finds a Way” was written as well as drawn by Al Hartley, while the inks were by Jon D’Agostino, and the coloring was handled by Barry Grossman.
Al Hartley was a relatively new addition to Archie Comics’ stable of freelancers, having only begun working for the company in 1967 — but he was a comics industry veteran, his earliest work having first been published by Better Publications (aka Standard or Nedor) in 1946. In 1949, he’d begun a long professional association with Stan Lee at what was then called Timely Comics, working in a variety of genres before settling into an extended run on Patsy Walker and its spinoff titles. Hartley had even briefly tried his hand at superheroes when Lee steered Marvel Comics back in that direction in the early ’60s, drawing a single Thor story (Journey into Mystery #90 [March, 1963]) and writing one Giant-Man adventure (Tales to Astonish #69 [July, 1965]) before he and/or Lee decided the genre wasn’t really his forte.***
Hartley had also been one of the freelancers who produced the risqué but not-quite-pornographic “Pussycat” strips that ran from 1965 in various “men’s magazines” published by Martin Goodman, who also owned Marvel at that time. It’s this particular credit which seems to have ultimately led to the termination of Hartley’s long association with Marvel, as the cartoonist converted to evangelical Christianity in 1967 and afterwards felt he could no longer in good conscience work on such material. Hartley actually appears to have been without any solid prospects as a freelancer for a brief period in ’67, a situation that ended when he received a call out of the blue from Archie Comics, offering him work. Many years later, Hartley would describe this development as a literal act of God; and whether or not one accepts his take onthe event, it’s undeniable that it would turn out to have important ramifications not just for Hartley, but for the entire Archie brand.
There’s little to no indication of the Christian themes that Hartley’s Archie work would one day be known for to be found in his first story appearing in AGSM #169, however — though, as we’ll soon see, it does tie into the issue’s overall theme of “brotherly love”, which is, of course, entirely compatible with Christianity (at least, it’s supposed to be):
As everyone who’s ever read an Archie comic or seen an Archie cartoon must already know, Mr. Andrews’ best buddy, Forsythe Pendleton “Jughead” Jones III, is as disinterested in girls as Archie is, well, interested. Meanwhile, their classmate “Big” Ethel Muggs has long carried a blazing torch for (who else?) Jughead. So it’s hardly a surprise when Jug ducks out of sight on seeing her approach, any more than it is when we learn that Big Ethel herself just wants to give the object of her unrequited affection a nice Christmas present.
Archie and Betty don’t give Jughead away (interestingly, Hartley’s script manages to let them do this without either of them having to tell an outright lie), but neither are happy about it — especially not Betty:
When Jughead wonders what he can do about the situation, Betty promptly informs him that he can show he’s “a real man in the true Christmas spirit of brotherly love” by giving Ethel “one of the nicest presents she ever had” — he can take her out on a date!
Inspired by the Christmas “love-in” spirit, Jughead promptly locates a phone booth and then proceeds to call Ethel and ask her out. She’s thrilled, of course — so much so that the volume of her enthusiastic assent comically hurts Jug’s ears — and Betty and Arch are proud of their friend for doing the right thing.
It’s instructive to compare this story with the Reggie tale from earlier in the issue. In both narratives, the protagonist acts wrongly at first, but then is inspired to change his ways and make amends. But Jughead, unlike the generally less sympathetically portrayed Reggie, manages to escape the consequences of both his moral error and of his repentance. (I’m almost tempted to bring in my “karmic” interpretation of the earlier story here; but, besides the fact that Hartley probably didn’t have anything to do with that one, as a born-again Christian he would certainly never have been thinking about morality in terms of Eastern religious ideas.) It should also be noted that Jug’s “narrow escape” comes at the expense of Big Ethel — who may indeed be an innocent, but who is also a less popular character than Jughead, as well as being portrayed as less physically attractive than the other girls of the Archieverse — two “sins” which, in the story’s moral universe, seem to make it OK to dump a load of snow on her and probably make her ill, besides (never mind cheating her out of her date with “Juggy Baby”).
We’ll have more to say about Al Hartley and his impact on Archie comics later in the post, but for now, let’s move on to our next story, which happens to focus on yet another member of the Riverdale High faculty — the school’s head P.E. teacher, “Coach” Kleats:
If one assumes some loose continuity between the stories in this issue (and continuity is never a given when it comes to vintage Archie comics), then it appears that Archie has enlisted at least one additional flower child — namely, Jughead — since the events of “Understanding Candy”.
I’m sure the reason that Coach Kleats calls the guys “flower girls” is just because they remind him of, y’know, flower girls in a wedding ceremony, and that it has nothing to do with the idea that flowers, peace, and tranquility are all “girly”, and thus inappropriate for his competitive, hard-charging he-man athletes. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
As practice gets underway, Coach Kleats is horrified to discover that not only Archie and Jughead, but also Moose, and even his star player, Reggie, have joined the flower power movement. In fact, it seems the whole team has been infected by “the true Christmas spirit of brotherhood”, which the coach is certain will lead to a lack of aggressiveness on the basketball court — to be followed, of course, by a humiliating loss:
Before the coach can even comprehend what’s happening, Riverdale High has pulled off a huge win — and he’s the hero of the hour:
Setting aside the blatant sexism (and indirect homophobia) inherent in that earlier “flower girls” business, the moral of this story seems to be that you can care about peace, love, and understanding and be a decent basketball player, too. No arguments from me on that score.
The next story continues right along with the flower-power love-in theme:
“The Bee” assures Miss Grundy (who must not have been around for the big basketball game) that Arch and Reg’s behavior is harmless, and that maybe she should try to be less of a Scrooge:
No need to worry about Mr. Bee, folks! The vintage Archieverse is the kind of place where a middle-aged man in (apparently) poor physical shape can fall head-over-heels down a full flight of stairs twice in as many minutes, and barely get a bruise!
As soon as Mr. Weatherbee is back within proximity of Archie, he sneezes again — prompting the principal to ask just what kind of flowers America’s Favorite Teenager is pushing, anyway:
And since Archie and Reggie have been handing these flowers out all over the school (and for most of this giant-sized issue), what’s a Bee to do?
Does Mr. Weatherbee deserve to suffer the ravages of allergic rhinitis just because of his momentary (and rather well-justified) anger with Archie? Probably not, but it’s funny. And Miss Grundy’s now been bitten by the love-in bug as well, so chalk up another win for flower power.
Next up are two pages of “Archie’s Club News” — essentially a letters column, though the letters are all about “Archie” in general rather than any specific comic title or issue; indeed, they’re almost entirely about the TV show and the records, with the comic books barely rating a mention (which seems rather telling).
This text feature is followed by the last one-pager, a second strip featuring Riverdale Elementary student L’il Jinx:
The GCD attributes both the script and art for this “Li’l Jinx” entry to Joe Edwards, while it gives no credits at all for the one that appeared earlier in the issue. But considering that Edwards created the character in 1947, and continued to write and draw her for the next thirty-five years — and also bearing in mind that I can’t find any evidence that any other creators worked on her during that time — it seems pretty likely that he wrote and drew the earlier strip as well.
Bart Beaty notes in Twelve-Cent Archie that the writing in the “Li’l Jinx” strips tended to be “noticeably more accessible than even the main Archie stories and sometimes seemed to serve an entirely different (younger) readership.” Perhaps that’s why Li’l Jinx made little to no impression on me as a twelve-to-fifteen year old reader, despite her near-ubiquity in the Archie comics of this era.
Following this one-page gag strip — the last such in the issue — comes the fourth and final “flower power” story, featuring yet another member of the Riverdale High staff. This time, it’s Miss Bernice Beazley, who runs the school cafeteria (and whom my younger self thought looked like Popeye’s twin sister).
As the story opens, we see that Betty and Veronica have now joined Archie in his flower-giving efforts:
Having seen Mr. Weatherbee bounce back so quickly from two successive tumbles down a flight of stairs, we readers can hardly be surprised when Miss Beazley’s fall doesn’t seem to damage anything, except maybe her pride.
It’s a great “I am Spartacus!” moment (though that reference wouldn’t have occurred to my twelve-year-old self).
Unimpressed with the students’ show of solidarity, Miss Beazley marches them all to the principal’s office, where she demands Mr. Weatherbee keep them all an hour after school. The Bee, unsurprisingly, takes a more benign view of Archie and his friends’ activities. (But if Mr. Weatherbee’s not in the boiler room where we last saw him, does that mean that “Looky, Looky, Looky… Here Comes Cookie!” takes place before “Flower Children”? Ehh… it’s an Archie story. Best not to worry about it.)
Strange ways, indeed, Mr. Bee! But however it’s come about, Christmas flower power has again carried the day.
With the last story in the issue (which is another one drawn by Al Hartley, according to the GCD, though the writer’s credit remains a question mark this time), we depart from Riverdale High, and also leave the flowers behind — but not the run of multi-pagers focused on adults, as this tale headlines Veronica Lodge’s father, Hiram. Reading all of these stories in sequence, t’s easy to imagine that the Archie editorial staff, having already determined that this issue would have a general theme of “the spirit of Christmas love”, then gravitated towards story situations in which the more innocent teen stars would instruct the adults in their lives about the topic.
As “De-Lighted” begins, however, Mr. Lodge is as yet nowhere in sight:
Practically bursting with the Christmas spirit, Arch and Ronnie proceed on to the latter’s home, where they find Mr. Lodge busy hanging holiday lights on all the trees in his front yard. He explains that he’s trying to win the contest for the best decorated house on the block, the winner of which will get its picture in the Sunday paper — in color! Naturally, Archie and Veronica are eager to help out:
Should we worry about Mr. Lodge being seriously injured by having thousands of volts of electricity shoot through his body? Um, have you been paying attention?
After he picks himself up, dusts himself off, and bellows in rage at Archie, Lodge heads into the house to try to relax. Archie, of course, is determined to make thing right, and takes it upon himself to fix the problem with the tree lights:
This finale makes for a generally nice and cozy (if mildly ironic) conclusion to the issue overall, even though the “love-in” theme is relatively weak in this story.
Thus ended my very first Archie comic, as well as Archie Comics’ very first Archie’s Christmas Love-In holiday special. My younger self may have closed the comic feeling slightly disappointed that none of the stories had actually featured a Hippie Guru Santa, but it wouldn’t keep me from buying either another Archie comic in general, or another Archie’s Christmas Love-In in particular.
Not that I ever became anything like a regular Archie reader — indeed, over the next couple of decades, I don’t believe I purchased more Archie comics than I could count on the fingers of both hands. But I did keep a finger in the pie, as it were, at least up until 1974 or thereabouts — and the reason why had a lot to do, either directly or indirectly, with Archie’s Christmas Love-In.
Archie Comics would in fact produce twelve more installments of Love-In, one per year, with the last appearing in Archie Giant Series Magazine #514**** (January, 1982). At that point, the publisher appears to have decided that the “love-in” theme was too dated to continue with (it had already outlasted its original inspiration, the countercultural love-ins, by about a decade), as its other Christmas specials — Archie’s Christmas Stocking and Betty and Veronica Christmas Spectacular — would contine to appear for several more years.
As it happens, I didn’t pick up the editions of Archie’s Christmas Love-In that were released for the 1970 or 1971 holiday seasons, though I’m pretty sure I bought another Archie comic or two during those years. Perhaps I never saw the Love-In issues. In reviewing the GCD entries for those comics, however, I get the impression that the stories in each were by and large pretty standard holiday stuff, the light “hippie” theme from AGSM #169 being nowhere in evidence. Further research, however, turns up one story in the 1970 edition (AGSM #181) which had something on its mind besides decorating and gift-giving, and would prove a harbinger of things to come. That story, “Surprise Package”, has a mild “twist” ending involving a mysterious wrapped package that turns out to be a Bible — the latter being something you wouldn’t expect to see in an Archie comicw, especially not in this context. According to the GCD, the story was drawn by Al Hartley, and I believe it’s likely to have been written by him as well.
The next Love-In that actually came into my hands would be the one published as AGSM #205, which came out in late 1972. Hartley was well represented in this issue, which included three full stories written and drawn by the born-again believer that, while they never specifically mention Jesus Christ by name, leave no doubt that in the author’s mind, at least, “Jesus is the the reason for the season”. With this issue, Archie’s Christmas Love-In left behind any last vestiges of a countercultural, Eastern religion-tinged approach to “peace and love”, and became all about the love of God — the evangelical Christian conception of God, that is.
It may be instructive to look briefly at one of these stories, “Soup Spooning”, as it provides some points of comparison with Hartley’s earlier “Love Finds a Way”, from the first Love-In; like that story, this tale plays off the stock Archieverse situation of Big Ethel’s unrequited love for Jughead. In “Soup Spooning”, Miss Beazley’s soup inadvertently gains aphrodisiac properties when a sprig of mistletoe falls into the pot. Following a number of comic situations involving unexpected “romantic” pairings among the Riverdale High staff (Miss Beazley and the custodian Mr. Svensen, Mr. Weatherbee and Miss Grundy [again], teachers Professor Flutesnoot and Miss Haggly), Ethel’s dream seems to come true when she gets a big smooch from Jughead. But then the soup rins out, its effects wear off, and Ethel is left alone and loveless again.
Then Betty steps up to remind Ethel that “the only real love is from God!… Love came down at Christmas.” The latter girl isn’t immediately convinced, however. “Betty, you’re talking serious and religious!” she exclaims. “I’m talking about fun things!”
The “serious and religious” talk in this story, as well as in Harley’s other contributions to the issue, definitely startled me when I first read this comic in 1972… but it impressed me, as well. The ideas expressed here by Betty and other characters were ones with which I was already familiar and comfortable, because I was receiving them regularly at church. I wasn’t used to see them presented so forthrightly in a “regular” comic book, however, and so I probably took it as a form of validation. In any event, I was primed to accompany Hartley into the next phase of his personal “The Gospel According to Arche” project, which debuted in 1973.
The story of how Al Hartley was approached by the Fleming H. Revell Company, an evangelical Christian publisher, to spearhead their new line of “Spire Christian Comics” — and how he convinced Archie Comics’ Jewish publisher, John Goldwater, to license his company’s iconic characters for same — has been told in detail elsewhere.***** I would like to comment, however, on one standard element of that story, found in almost all accounts — which is that prior to the Spire deal, Hartley’s bosses at Archie had noticed him proselytizing (or, as we called it back in the ’70s at the First Baptist Church in Jackson, MS — and as Betty Cooper also calls it on the cover of Archie’s One Way [Spire, 1973] — “witnessing”) within the pages of their comics and asked him to desist, which he promptly did. The truth seems to be slightly more complicated, as the Spire “Archie” comics began appearing in 1973 — and late that year, when the next Archie’s Christmas Love-In appeared on newsstands (as Archie Giant Series Magazine #218), it would include a couple of Al Hartley stories that, while being slightly less in-your-face than the ones in AGSM #205 (and much less so than the actual Spire Archies), nevertheless explicitly promoted the religious meaning of the Christmas holiday. Maybe these stories had been bought and paid for before Goldwater and co. put the kibosh on Hartley’s proselytizing in the pages of the “real” Archie comics, or perhaps they just cut him some slack regarding the Christmas stories. In any case, it’s not quite accurate to imagine a clear and definite chronological divide between Hartley’s Christian-themed work for Archie Comics and his work for Spire’s Archie titles.
As it turned out, AGSM #218 was the last Christmas Love-In in which new work by Hartley would appear. Afterwards, that logo would appear on Christmas specials that were pretty interchangeable with Archie’s other Christmas books, up until 1982, when (as we’ve already noted) the Love-In name was dropped. I myself didn’t buy any of the issues published after 1973; like Hartley, my Archie comics focus (such as it was) would henceforth be centered on the Spire titles that started showing up at our local Baptist Book Store during that same year.
I don’t want to give the impression that I bought all of these titles, by any means. There were 19 of ’em, after all, published from 1973 to 1982, and my interest in Archies of any sort ebbed well before then. But for the first couple of years, during a time when my evangelical Chrstian belief and practice still comprised a major part of my self-image, Spire’s Archie line kept me interested in the Riverdale crew long after I’d ceased to pay attention to the animated cartoons, or to play the Archies’ records.
I’m not going to go into a detailed analysis of those comics here — partly because this is already a helluva long post, and partly because I’d like to leave myself the option of doing so when they’re actually fifty years old, some four years from now. For the time being, suffice it to say that they’re unlike any other comic books you’ll ever read, and represent — if nothing else — a fascinating and bizarre chapter in the history of one of American comics’ best known brands. A lot of people find the non-stop witnessing, excuse me, proselytizing off-putting, and even creepy, and I understand that; if I hadn’t had the upbringing I did, I suspect I’d find these books pretty outré as well.
On the other hand, if you want to see Archie and the gang talking openly about pot and sex in a 1970s comic book, where else are you gonna go?
After 1975, I didn’t buy another Archie comic book — from any publisher — for about twenty years (with the exception of a single Little Archie reprint I picked up in the early ’80s, because I was intrigued by what I’d read about Bob Bolling’s work on that title). Come the mid-’90s, however, my two daughters were both of reading age, and I thought they might enjoy the Archie titles, so I bought a few random issues. I have no recollection of the girls’ reactions, which I guess means they must not have been knocked out by ’em (to say the least).
I then avoided Archie comics for another two decades. Over those years, I would read with some interest about the publisher’s experiments of one kind or another — Archie Meets the Punisher, Archie Marries Veronica/Archie Marries Betty, etc. — but never with so much interest that I was willing to part with any actual coin to be able to read those stories. But, in 2015, when Archie Comics announced plans for the “New Riverdale” line, in which the publisher would reboot the Archieverse into a new, more realistic milieu, I decided to give it a chance. That was almost entirely on the strength of the name of the “new” Archie’s first writer, Mark Waid, whom I considered, then as well as now, to be one of the most reliably entertaining comics scripters of the last three decades. If Waid was writing the new line’s flagship book (i.e., Archie), I figured I had to at least give it a shot. (Especially since the preview art by Fiona Staples, whose work I knew only by reputation at that point, looked very promising.)
Somewhat to my surprise, four years later, Archie is still on my subscription list. Currently, it’s being co-written by Nick Spencer and Mariko Tamaki, with art by various talented hands; and while I have some small niggling concerns about the storyline’s recent turn towards melodrama (which I suppose brings it a bit closer to the tone of the popular CW TV series Riverdale, which I haven’t watched), it’s still a great read. I can’t speak for any of the other titles in the line (at least, not yet) — but I can heartily recommend it to you if you enjoy good comics, regardless of your age — and regardless of whether or not you’ve ever read an Archie comic book before in your life.
And with that, I’ll bring this post to a close. If you’ve read this far, let me say that I appreciate you sticking around for the whole thing — and also that I apologize for any confusion that might have been caused by the near-constant repetition of the name “Archie” to refer variably to a character, a comics publisher, a comics line, a comic title, a way of life, etc., etc.. I’m afraid it couldn’t be helped, however, because when one has to write a post like this one… everything’s “Archie”.
(That’s your cue, gang. Hit it!)
*For a comprehensive history of Archie on television, see Andy Mangels’ fine article “
Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll Awkward Dancing, Sugar, Sugar, and Bubblegum Pop: The Archies on TV” in Back Issue #107 (Sept., 2018).
**I’ve found no record of Archie Comics lodging a similar complaint with Marvel, but if they did, it appears to have been ignored, as the latter company not only continued with the “new look” of Millie the Model and its related titles, but even went so far to launch a new Archie clone, Harvey, in 1970. I’m just speculating here, but I can easily imagine that if editor Stan Lee had received such a complaint from anyone at Archie, he might have reminded the offended party of Archie’s own earlier, and equally brazen, copying of the Marvel Comics Group “look” with their short-lived “Mighty Comics Group” line of 1965-67. Sauce for the goose, and all that.
***Ironically, the Marvel character with whom Hartley remains most closely associated, Patsy Walker, would herself ultimately become a superhero — I’m speaking of Hellcat, of course — courtesy of Steve Englehart and George Pérez, in Avengers #144 (Feb., 1976).
****Before you get too impressed with the high issue numbers achieved by AGSM over the years (for the record, the very last issue, cover-dated July, 1992, was #632), be advised that, for reasons that remain unknown, the title made huge jumps in numerical sequence not one, but twice — first, in 1965, when it went from #35 to #136, and then again in 1976, when it leapt from #251 to #452. In other words, the series’ final issue was actually its 332nd, rather than its 632nd.