On Bob Montana and “Archie”

There are many Archie-versaries to be celebrated now and in the near future: the centennial of the birth of the artist who first drew Archie Andrews and company, Bob Montana (1920-1975), the 80th anniversary of the main character’s debut in 1941, as well as the advent of the comic book that bore his name in 1942, and the radio show in 1943. I’m sure I don’t have to tell younger folks that the whole franchise is more vital than ever right now, thanks to a major overhaul the comic received in 2007, the launch of the TV show Riverdale in 2017, and the various incarnations of the spinoff Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Our focus, it won’t surprise you to know, will be on the two Os: Origins and the Old Days.

Montana was of Italian American immigrant stock. Both of his parents were in show business! His father Ray Montana played the banjo in vaudeville; his mother Roberta Pandolfini is frequently given out to have been a Ziegfeld Girl, an overused attribution that isn’t always literally true and I haven’t come across corroboration. At the very least she is likely to have been a chorus girl somewhere. Montana grew up in New England though he was often on the road with his parents.

He was only 21 years old when his employers at MLJ Comics asked him to work up a high school premise, ostensibly inspired by the Andy Hardy movies. Of course, there was nothing new about such a thing. Previous to that there had been such things as Harold Teen, and The Boyfriends, which were very similar in conception. But there was something very potent about the constellation of characters that Montana cooked up. They wound up being archetypal. I use the characters as shorthand to describe people all the time to this day. Obviously, there is the Betty vs. Veronica, blonde vs. brunette, dichotomy, still used as a bellwether for a guy’s favored “types”. In this schema for some reason (in contrast with the “blondes have more fun” one) the brunette is the naughtier, darker one, and the blonde one is more wholesome (tends to work that way in soap operas, too). Jughead is the goofy friend, who’s always eating snacks or something. Reggie is the campus jerk. Dilton Doiley is a nerdy brain. There is a dumb athlete named Moose. And the principal Mr. Weatherbee. And of course, red-haired, freckled Archie, at the center of the universe, just trying to stay out of trouble. Am I wrong in conjecturing that Happy Days‘ Richie Cunningham seems based on him? Potsie and Ralph Malph seem like two different aspects of Jughead. Ah, but if we start talking about characters plainly descended from the Archie-verse, we’ll never end. As we said Sabrina the Teenage Witch was an Archie character who spun off, and so too were Josie and the Pussycats.

In addition to the long-running comic book and newspaper comic strip, there was also a popular radio Archie Andrews that ran an entire decade (1943-53) starring Bob Hastings as Archie. My main pipeline to the Archiverse (besides reading the comic book in the barber chair) was the Saturday morning cartoon shows produced by Filmation in the 1970s, along with Josie and the Pussycats, etc. Howard Morris was one of the voiceover actors. Ironically, by the time I got to high school no teenager would have been caught dead reading Archie comics. All that has changed since the updating, I believe. Which I think is a very good thing — as long as Sam Levinson never gets his hands on it.