“This is a story of cartoons, creativity and Christ. Of how I met Archie and led him to Jesus. And what happened to me along the way.”
– Al Hartley, from the back cover of his autobiography Come Meet My Friend.
Over the past decade, Archie Comics has become one of the most successful publishers in the comic book industry. Once unjustly dismissed as square kiddie comics, Archie Comics’ willingness to take chances and shake up the status quo with openly gay characters and horror spin-offs have kept their characters popular for 75 years now and have gained the brand a reputation for progressiveness and risk-taking.
Their openness to both is perhaps best exemplified by Kevin Keller, a character created by artist and writer Dan Parent. Keller is Riverdale’s first openly gay teen, and his adventures on the printed page are both humorous and heartbreaking as he deals with coming out to his friends, developing first crushes and navigating a love triangle of his own that mirrors the Archie/Betty/Veronica dynamic. But what was revolutionary about Keller was how quickly his peers embraced him. As such, he became an embodiment of the hopes and dreams of the “It Gets Better” generation and an inspiration for readers of all sexual identities.
In the future-set Life with Archie: The Married Life series, Keller marries his African-American boyfriend and runs for Senate – setting in motion a course of actions that lead to Archie dying at the hands of a madman who was trying to kill Keller due to his gun control policies. Keller’s acceptance from his peers and constituents illustrates the current Archie ethos: Riverdale is a town where all are welcome. Another example of Archie’s forward-thinking approach is the company’s revamping of the core Archie title using writer Mark Waid and artist Fiona Staples, keeping the 70-year-old comic a fresh, contemporary work with style and substance. Altogether, they’ve helped the publisher shed Archie’s stale image, one that was established in part by the strange evangelical Archie comics of the 1970s and ‘80s
The creator of evangelical Archie comics works was Al Hartley, an illustrator who started his career as a freelancer. In 1949, he began collaborating for a then rising star in the comics industry named Stan Lee. Together the pair worked on various projects, including the Patsy Walker comic, a humorous book about a teen who navigated high-school life and dating that foreshadowed Hartley’s eventual Archie contributions.
Hartley continued working for various companies until 1967, when his growing ennui made him realize there a spiritual void within him that needed to be filled; thus, he became a born-again Christian. After handing his life over to God, Hartley refused to continue working on pieces he felt violated his new-found moral code – such as Pussycat, a sexy and risque adult comic that was featured in various magazines owned by the same publisher that released Marvel Comics. Years later, in his autobiography, he’d call the comic “not compatible with my commitment to honor God in every area of my life.”
His staunch commitment to his new ideology soon left him out of work, but then a ginger savior appeared. Archie Comics cold-called Hartley and asked him to draw for them and he accepted. The new partnership proved an immediate success, with Hartley’s broad illustrations – most notably his overly cartoonish takes on previously established characters like the rotund Mr. Weatherbee and ugly duckling Big Ethel – drawing instant notice from comic fans.
After a period of working for Archie, something strange happened. Hartley, for reasons that still baffle Archie historians, was given carte blanche with his stories. Thus, he began inserting blatant religious undertones into his work on the company’s various Christmas title — resulting in stories like “Novel Noel” which reminds readers that, yep, Jesus is the reason for the season. Although these holiday-themed stories went to print, Hartley was told to keep the overt spirituality off of the printed page in the future. But he remained undeterred and became convinced he was put on the Earth to use Archie to gain new followers for Christ. In his fascinating 1977 autobiography Come Meet My Friend, Hartley explains the genesis of using Archie to spread the gospel:
“I saw possibilities for more than laughs with Archie. Here was a chance for a Christian witness, on comic pages read by millions of kids. True, it had never been done before, but that fact simply reinforced my feeling that it was about time.”
Then something, er, miraculous happened. Hartley was contacted by the Fleming H. Revell Company to do a comic book adaptation of the Dave Wilkerson novel The Cross and The Switchblade — a novel about a young preacher’s attempts to get New York City teens off of the streets and into the loving embrace of God. At that moment, a light bulb went off in his head: why not have the Fleming H. Revell Company publish religious-themed comics featuring the Archie characters?
Hartley contacted Archie founder John Goldwater for permission to use Archie and his pals in spiritually-based stories, with the stipulation that these works would remain a separate entity from the main Archie line and sold primarily at Christian bookstores. Hartley got the blessing from Goldwater, and now Archie had found a purpose greater than just trying to choose between Betty and Veronica.
From 1977 to 1982, Hartley worked on 57 comics for the imprint – everything from a line of kids’ books featuring Barney Bear to the still-sought after title Hello, I’m Johnny Cash – all the while continuing to write and illustrate regular Archie comics. Nineteen of the titles in the Spiral Christian Comics line were Archie ones, featuring such era-specific groovy names as Archie’s Something Else!, Archie’s Love Scene and Jughead’s Soul Food.
The mainstream Archie comics regularly featured riffs on the standard formula of Archie being caught up in a love triangle between Betty and Veronica while Jughead eschews girls for food. The Spire books had their own repeating motifs: Betty is constantly spreading the word of Jesus, with her affections for Archie now creepily transferred to the Son of God (see inset); Archie’s clumsiness proves that man is imperfect; Jughead eats because he doesn’t have Christ’s nourishment; etc. Well-meaning though they were, it’s hard not to see these comics as anything less than kitschy oddities or instant meme fodder.
As you can imagine, these comics were absolutely nuts. Take for example the events of Archie’s Sonshine. Arguably the kookiest of all the Spire Christian Books, this head-scratching epic begins with Riverdale High principal Mr. Weatherbee complaining about modern fashions as the Archie gang each make statements summing up their characters.
The heavy-handed exposition sets up the second part of the book, where Archie and the gang unexpectedly meet Rock Me Sexy Jesus on the beach. Driving a red van emblazoned with the word “LOVE” and a picture of a heart with a cross, the so-’70s stranger makes speeches saying things like, “Love your enemies! Pray for them,” and generally acting like a cool laid back dude. Then he makes Liberace appear. Huh?
Riverdale Liberace is the most wonderful thing to ever happen in a comic book, yet none of the teens think there’s anything odd about a shirtless, permed Messiah making the flamboyant pianist appear out of the ether to regale Riverdale’s youth with his sublime songcraft.
The strangeness wasn’t relegated to just Archie’s Sonshine either. Each Spire Archie comic is set up as a series of loosely interrelated vignettes —the gang goes to the beach, the gang starts a circus, and so forth — all which lead into a closing message about how God is the answer to all of life’s problems. Often in these books, the characters encounter conflict with outside forces that are far edgier than what they might meet in the main Archie line. In the case of Archie’s Something Else!, for example, a camera crew comes to Riverdale High in the wake of a bomb threat whereupon they begin asking questions such as:
Speaking of witchcraft, where is Sabrina right about now? And is that Ron Burgundy? Can an Archie Meets Anchorman crossover be far off?
At this point, some context is necessary. In the 1970s, Archie began experimenting with more dramatic storylines in their comics. Primarily, these atypical tales were featured in the books Life with Archie and Archie at Riverdale High and dealt with topics ranging from dropping out of school to, er, Satanic teddy bears.
These more adult stories sometimes bled over into other books as well. Case in point, the infamous issue #72 of Josie and the Pussycats where Josie became possessed by the devil and was eventually saved with the help of the Bible, but Hartley wasn’t involved with that issue, which was more of a reaction to The Exorcist than anything else.
As serious (and weird) as these A-list Archie books could get, they still didn’t dare include words like ‘sex’ and ‘drugs’ like the Spire ones could use thanks to their non-compliance to the rules established by the Comics Code Authority, the censorship board the comics industry set up in 1954 during Senator Estes Kefauver’s McCarthy-style witch-hunt against publishers of horror comics. Without having to follow the guidelines of the CCA like mainstream Archie, DC and Marvel had to, the Spire books were free to push the envelope of what could now go down in Riverdale, thus characters like smarmy TV producers and drug-loving miscreants were suddenly mixing it up with Archie and the gang.
The pious nature of these comics and their repetitiveness made them not especially fun to read, especially for kids used to the non-stop laughs of the regular comics with their humor driven by Archie’s clumsiness or Jughead’s endless hunger (a character trait that toned down in the Spire books because gluttony is a sin). To be blunt, the Spire Christian Comics were a drag.
Preachiness is one thing, but cultural insensitivity is another thing entirely. Which brings us to Archie’s World, a xenophobic tour de force where the teens try to spread God’s world across the globe. Resulting in panels like this:
Viewed from a 2015 point of view, these comics are cheesy relics from a simpler time. But the question remains of what lasting impact, if any, did the Al Hartley Spire comics have on Archie’s reputation? In the 1980s and ’90s, Archie Comics’ reliability could have also been its greatest detriment amidst the backdrop of a comics industry that was consumed by the type of dark edginess offered up by comics like Watchmen and Spawn. After all, how exciting is a teenage love triangle in comparison to the travails of dysfunctional antiheroes coping with impending nuclear war or the adventures of a man who returns from Hell for vengeance?
Kids comics fell out of favor during this time, with Archie’s greatest competitor, Harvey Comics (publisher of Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost), finally going under in 1994. Yet its consistency was also Archie’s saving grace, with parents impulse buying the reprint digests at supermarkets knowing what type of wholesome entertainment it had for their kids to enjoy. Comforting enough, you can still find Archie digests near the checkout lane to this day.
As for Hartley, he passed in away in 2003. Nowadays Archie’s creative renaissance seems to be unstoppable, with one intriguing new project being announced after another. So perhaps a further re-evaluation of Al Hartley’s Christian Comics could be found in the form of an retrospective volume similar to what Archie has done with its reprint tomes issued by IDW? It can and probably should happen. After all, who knows how many souls Al Hartley might yet save.
(Featured image via Gone & Forgotten)
This article was originally published on August 2, 2015.