Archie Comics is best known for the superheroic feat of continuing to thrive while the rest of the comics industry slumps, outpacing other companies by still selling millions annually and appearing at point-of-sale in supermarkets throughout the United States while most of its competition is consigned to the specialty comic shop. But the imprint that has prospered from tales of the ageless all-American teen and his madcap pals has at times also fearlessly pursued the caped crime fighter market, heeding the call of the genre's cyclical booms.
Archie Comics began in 1939 as MLJ, one of many pulp-magazine publishers that saw gold in them thar colorful costumes. Though obscure today and minor by any measure, the company scored a surprising number of firsts. For instance, MLJ debuted the original patriotic superhero, the Shield, in 1940, fourteen months before (and with an almost identical origin to) Captain America, who is widely remembered as the first and best of the type.
At the same time MLJ brought out the Comet, an early and forgotten brainchild of the now-revered Plastic Man creator Jack Cole. The Comet discovers a gas much lighter than hydrogen, and injects it into his veins (don't try this at home, kids), gaining the ability to fly, and the unfortunate side effect of rays that shoot uncontrollably from his eyes but are restrained by a special visor—an unlikely
power lifted verbatim, and much more profitably, by Marvel Comics for the X-Men team-leader Cyclops decades later.
Steel Sterling, who in 1940 acquired the strength of that metal by coating himself in a special chemical and leaping naked into a molten vat of the stuff (don't even think about it, kids) was actually comics' first character to be called
The Man of Steel, and MLJ also featured perhaps the first death of a superhero and the first
outing of a secret identity. (Such subjects would become preoccupations in the mid-1980s, with DC Comics' infamous fan phone-in contest to decide if the Joker should kill Robin, and in the early 2000s, with Marvel's lengthy storyline on the tabloid revelation of Daredevil's alter ego.)
In 1941 the Comet was murdered by vengeful gangsters, becoming likely the first star in superhero history to die—or at least to stay dead; the medium has seen many costumed resurrections, and, with the ghostly crusader Mr. Justice, MLJ was one of several companies to feature heroes who started dead. (MLJ broke even on the Comet's demise, using the event to inspire his brother to become 1941's answer to Charles Bronson, the Hangman.) A different costumed vigilante, the Black Hood, demoted himself to street-clothes detective after a villain unmasked him in 1946, though for the preceding six years this most generic of superheroes had enjoyed a surprising degree of renown, not only headlining comics but starring briefly in his own pulp magazine and radio show.
But even this fame, like that of all the MLJ heroes, was fleeting; the ingratiating Archie was introduced in the back pages of Pep Comics (then the Shield and Hangman's domain) in 1941, and by 1945 he was the runaway hit that put all of MLJ's heroes into retreat (even taking over the name of the company in that year). It would be almost two decades before the costumes would come out of storage.
When DC rang in comics' Silver Age (1956–1969) by revising and revamping characters like the Flash and Green Lantern in the mid- to-late 1950s, Archie Comics was the first competitor to follow suit, with a retooled Shield (adapted by Captain America's own creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, as The Double Life of Private Strong). This comic was soon followed by The Fly (whose alter ego rubs a magic ring to gain all the powers of the insect world) in 1959 and The Jaguar (whose alter ego, um, rubs a magic belt to gain all the powers of the animal kingdom) in 1961. Marvel Comics had a lot more success stealing DC's thunder, while the
Archie Adventure Series books bit the dust within a few years or even a few issues.
Regardless, Archie Comics tried again with the
Mighty Comics Group line in 1965, hiring, of all people, Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel to script several series in the campy fashion of the day. The Fly was renamed Fly-Man; his counterpart Fly-Girl appeared; the Shield's son showed up in his dad's costume; the Black Hood and the Comet came out of retirement (or, in the Comet's case, death); and the Hangman and another 1940s MLJ hero, the Wizard, were economically repurposed as supervillains. There were occasional walk-ons by many MLJ alums, and the company even licensed an unappetizingly costumed superhero version of the classic pulp avenger the Shadow.
Capitalizing on the hip humor and hyperbole of early 1960s Marvel Comics and the Batman television show while lacking their wit and quality, Archie's
Mighty titles did have a breathless, show-must-go-on exuberance that gives them a certain crude charm and admirable audacity. If nothing else, they tell a crucial part of comics history, as indicators of how insatiable the market for superheroes once was—though these books in particular were history themselves by 1967.
Later, Archie Comics met a mid-1980s superhero boomlet with a fitful revival of its own costumed heroes, which lasted two years, from 1983 to 1985. First through the Red Circle imprint (1983–1984), a banner under which Archie had published respected occult-themed thrillers in the 1970s, and then through a return of the Archie Adventure Series (1984–1985), the company revived the Fly (and his original name), the Comet, both versions of the Shield, and the Mighty Crusaders (a catchall superteam of the Archie heroes first seen in the Mighty Comics days). Some of comics history's biggest names passed through the short-lived line (including Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko, who did covers, and Carmine Infantino, who did interior art on The Comet), but the comics' style seems to have surpassed their substance, and they rank among the medium's least remembered.
In the early 1990s, comics companies were eager to feed another fleeting superhero craze, fueled by a speculation boom among collectors. Feeling new to many readers while providing publishers with at least some kind of commercial pedigree, the Archie heroes briefly came to the rescue again, being licensed by DC Comics for the stand-alone
!mpact line (1991–1993). The familiar names were wheeled out with slightly unfamiliar (but none too innovative) origins and alter egos, including a Jaguar retooled to be a woman were-cat (like Marvel's Tigra), a Black Hood book in which the mystical headgear is more the star than its wearers (like Dark Horse's The Mask), a Comet powered by the explosion of a damaged radio antenna (?), several confusing generations of Shields, and so forth. The books generally suffered from the quantity-over-quality aesthetic that prevailed at the time, and, with only the comics-addict to sustain them, died off as the casual mass audience did. (Ironically, the rights to these characters hadn't been forthcoming a few years before, when a rising writer named Alan Moore wanted them for a little DC proposal that came to be called Watchmen.)
The Archie heroes occasionally cameo with America's favorite teen and appear on his website to stand guard over their own copyrights, but the company remains most amazing for the ordinary.