By Charles EP Murphy
Comic history is littered with short-lived runs and characters that, due to capturing a fan-turned-pro’s imagination at a young age or to preserve a license, will keep coming back. Sometimes they can find new life and stick around.
And other times, they’re the Archie Comics superhero characters and will go through a series of unending, contradictory revamps!
First published in the ‘Golden Age’ when the company was called MLJ, several of these superheroes had respectable runs. The Shield is mildly famous for being the first patriotic flag-adorned superhero, a full year before Captain America (and legal threats from MLJ meant Cap changed his original shield to the circular one he’s most well-known for). The Comet was bumped off by mobsters in the early 1940s, the first known time a superhero was killed off. The Black Hood was able to wrangle his own radio play for a few months and a short-lived pulp title.
After 1948, the superheroes faded away as tastes changed; the company’s big meal ticket had become the comedy love-triangle escapades of Archie Andrews and his chums in Riverdale, enough so to rename the company. The heroes could have been a footnote. But superheroes became big money again in 1956, and that means every now and then, Archie Comics has wanted some of it for themselves…
All The Old Faces
Archie first tried a limited return in 1959, drafting Joe Simon and Jack Kirby to revamp the Shield (their “Private Strong” lasted two issues before an alleged lawsuit from DC) and bring in a new character, the Fly. The Fly did well enough to spawn another superhero comic, The Jaguar, and the Black Hood and the Comet (who had a brand new costume and backstory, and wasn’t dead, but would be treated as the same guy) would make guest appearances.
In what will be a recurring theme in this article, Archie did some swift revamps of its heroes. As soon as Kirby left, the Fly went from being an orphan boy who becomes an adult hero ala Captain Marvel (not that one) to an adult district attorney between issues; meanwhile, the Comet had a whole new costume and origin, and wasn’t dead, but would be treated as the old guy coming back.
The comics were cancelled by 1965. But in 1966, Marvel Comics and Batman’s TV show made superheroes huge so the renamed Fly Man would come back to newsstands to kick off the “Mighty Comics” sub-line. Fly Man, his sidekick Fly-Girl, the Black Hood, the Comet, and the son of the first Shield would form a team, the Mighty Crusaders, which has since became the general name for all the Archie heroes. The Web would also come back, and then Mighty Crusaders #4 brought back every single MLJ superhero so #5 could have some of them form two new teams, clearly angling for new comics. This didn’t work out. An advertised Steel Sterling#1 was never released. This will also be a recurring theme in the article.
In contrast to just ten months before, these were deliberately campy tales that tried to rip-off/spoof the Stan Lee style and Batman. (There was even a cheeky dig at Stanley Lieber’s pen-name, with writer Jerry Siegel – yes, the co-creator of Superman – credited as “Jerry Ess”) The Mighty versions of the cast gave the characters problems as Marvel did, but these problems were deliberately comedic ones that made them losers. The new Shield was unable to hold a job down because of his superheroics and was seen by all as a lazy bum. The Fox had a weird fixation that his girlfriend must love his superhero identity as well, so he shows up to her nightclub in costume to moon over her; in a reverse of the usual format, she only has eyes for his secret identity. The Web was now middle-aged and his wife didn’t think he should be returning to action, turning him into a contemporary sitcom henpecked husband. The Web’s new status would stick around as part of the character’s setup in future revamps and is now the main thing he’s known for.
A summary in Comics Feature#57 lamented that they read like “a bad Marvel comic… It’s difficult to say now, over 40 years later, whether Siegel was just doing a jack imitation, or was actually lampooning… but either way, the result was sad.” It almost certainly was intentional, an attempt to fit the ‘high camp’ approach of exaggeration and so-bad-it’s-good. A book collection of several stories, High Camp Super-Heroes, boasted “Some will say this book is so bad it’s GREAT; Others will say Gutenberg would’ve smashed the printing press, had he but known!” But as The MLJ Companion sums up, the stories “unfortunately came off as stiff rather than funny” and the joke is often missed.
In the mid-70s, for Archie’s short-lived Red Circle line of horror and suspense comics, the Black Hood almost came back but his comic was cancelled at the last second. So was the entire Red Circle line! Editor Gray Morrow was told by Archie it “wasn’t selling as well as they expected, which conflicted with what one of the salesman told me at a later date” (as per MLJ Companion) – an indication that the company got cold feet, the third recurring theme in this article. His Black Hood strips would finally be published years later: moody crime stories about the original Hood’s nephew waging war on the mobs, one drawn by Neal Adams of Batman fame, with his uniform now basic street clothes and the hood more of a balaclava.
In the early 1980s, with the direct market proving to be profitable, Archie revived the Red Circle name for a line of new superhero comics. This time they were serious, action-and-continuity oriented tales, as was fitting the market of the time. This revival was due to a man named John Vincent Carbonaro who, in 1981, had bought Tower Comics’ old THUNDER Agents and approached Archie about including their superheroes in his comics as well. The company hired him as a freelance editor (and later managing director) to start Red Circle as they were unsure about the direct market and how to appeal to it – they’d hired Morrow in the same way to crack the horror market.
Quickly, there would be eight monthly titles with three editors overseeing it and Archie would even manage to get a Mighty Crusaders toyline out from Remco. Creatively, just as with Morrow’s Red Circle, they were given free reign and made use of it. The Comet was noted to be touching on themes of child abuse by The Comics Journal; the original Shield was put on trial; the Jaguar would have a more mythological origin; the Black Hood continued to be the gun-wielding Morrow revamp, while the legendary Alex Toth could run a more cartoonish Fox strip in backup strips. Meanwhile, the Comet’s two backstories were linked together, the Web and Jaguar were made brothers-in-law, and the Web was quietly retconned into being the son of the first one.
However, the whole line was cancelled in 1985. Before the end, it had been rebranded as Archie Adventure Series (a name later reused for their Ninja Turtles and Sonic comics) as the company felt this was a more valuable brand and would raise sales. Editor Rich Buckler protested that this would harm the line’s brand identity, but he was edged out during the change, his original character Darkling bumped off in the bargain. He told MLJ Companion, “I think the [branding] changeover confused comics buyers and hurt sales”.
However, other interviews in the book show there were clear issues behind the scenes anyway. Writer Cary Burkett said he felt there was “no solid definition to the characters” and no single vision followed by all the creators, which would leave readers confused. Writer Bill DuBay, who became an editor, said Archie’s owners took him aside and said “they were unhappy with the way Richard was handling their comics (specifically, their deadlines)” and money had “apparently [been] misspent”. Companion noted sales were middling as it was, and the Archie Adventure Series was distributed to newsstands as well as the direct market, meaning it had to submit to the Comic Code Authority and tone down (and DuBay’s titles were cut).
An advantage of direct market is the publisher doesn’t have to accept unsold stock back, and to be successful in newsstands you have to sell a lot of extra comics to make up for the returns. Evidently, this did not happen with the rebranded line. Worse, in Burkett’s words, the cohesiveness and continuity “totally fell to pieces” after Buckler left. The whole line was abruptly cancelled.
The Mighty DC
In 1991, however, one editor looked at the superhero comics market and felt there was not enough material for young readers, and too much continuity baggage. Of course, name value will also attract attention – like a return of the Mighty Crusaders. An all-ages, continuity-lite line focused on revamps of those characters, one sold in both the direct market and newsstands, could fill a niche.
However, that editor was Mike Gold at DC and Archie agreed to license the Crusaders since they weren’t using them. (The original plan, to use THUNDER Agents, was stymied by legal issues)
Other than the character names, almost everything was changed: “the Web” was now the name of a team, for example. Creators like Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn, Tom Lyle, and Michael Parobeck were brought in by editor Mike Gold. The planned release schedule, as Augustyn told Newsarama, was one comic at a time, “each issue promoting and teasing the next releases. We were trying to replicate the way we all got into comics; you’d buy one comic, then see ads and cross-references to other books and characters, which led to the next book and so on.” In a very sneaky move, after this was done for the new Black Hood, he was killed in #1 of his solo title and replaced by a new person!
The sales didn’t bear out for the line, which Mike Gold told Newsarama was in large part due to corporate shenanigans. “The new marketing/distribution Vice President told Dick Giordano and me that he wouldn’t support the line, so therefore it was a big mistake and we should kill it before the first issues ever came out. The newsstand drive, which was central to the entire concept, never happened.” Writer Len Strazewski noted part of the problem too was the 1993 market glut, and DC would push their core titles in place of the weaker Impact; Newsarama and Sequart’s Ryan McLelland also points out that for an alleged continuity-light series, Impact characters sure had a vast amount of backstory very quickly.
The Comic Book Heroes points to another issue: there was another ‘entry level’ for young readers in 1992, and it was Image Comics. If you look at the art on Impact, you can see this as a ‘clean’ style with bright colours, miles away from the heavily-detailed, teeth-snarling, kinetic work of hot artists like McFarlane, Larsen, and Liefeld, promising ‘mature’ violence and themes for twelve-year-old boys. In the long run, this means Impact has dated well artistically, the costumes and covers are clearly of their time, but they don’t look like Youngblood clones. At the time, unfortunately, this would have surely counted against them with part of the target audience.
To half declining sales, DC replaced Gold with Jim Owsley (now Christopher Priest) and a plan to revamp the line was put in place: the Crusaders would be lost in space, with all their solo titles cancelled and then relaunched when they came home. That was itself then scrapped for Crucible, a miniseries about the heroes left on Earth, with three comics in progress for the phase two relaunch. Instead, everything ended with Crucible#6 despite art being drawn for the relaunch – the sales weren’t high enough, in DC’s eyes, to justify bothering to license the properties.
And so, Archie got the licenses back… and did nothing with them for years.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Archie tried several small-scale revivals – trademark-saving PSAs drawn in the DC Animated Universe style, a web serial team up of Archie Andrews and the Web with the latter’s parts drawn by Neil Adams, appearances in Archie’s Weird Mysteries. In a rare moment for superhero comics, they lost the rights to the Fly and Private Strong to their co-creator, Joe Simon. And so, in 2009, they licensed the lot out to DC again.
But this time, they would be in DC continuity and they would be revamped by J Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 fame. The PR push was big. DC’s head honcho Dan DiDio told Comic Buyer’s Guide #1658 that in part this was about ‘plugging holes’, as DC Comics didn’t have a big “patriotic” hero ala Captain America. “We could go out and try to create one, but the Shield is probably the second-most recognisable flag-wearing character.”
Despite extremely enthusiastic interviews by the creators and editors, and crossovers with DC heroes, the line ended after 2010 as the sales, once again, just were not good enough. A contemporary review by Timothy Cahllahan for Comic Book Resources may show two reasons why: “I don't really believe this story is part of the DC Universe… this is a series that won't make a dent on DC continuity and we all know it.” More damningly, “it's generic.”
The New Dark
In 2012, to anchor their successful comic app, Archie made like The Dandy and did a digital comic serial. Interviews at the time on the potential reach are extremely similar to DC Thomson’s for the digital Dandy, though Archie CEO Jon Goldwater also admitted to the New York Times an extra advantage of reaching new readers digitally was “we are not going to have any print costs”.
The first comic was by Sonic writer Ian Flynn, a clear choice to grab the same young audience. New Crusaders focused on the sons and daughters of the originals, being mentored by the elderly Shield after their parents are presumed dead. Flynn told Comics Alliance that his thinking was “the average reader isn't going to be as enthralled with nods to yesteryear heroes… It's a new team with fresh faces for new readers to get to know and connect with from the start. The rich background will be what fills in the foundation of the book and will be there for the older fans. Everybody wins!” In their first story, they battle a supervillain jailbreak and one of the kids is shockingly killed.
Another series, The Fox by Mark Waid and Dean Haspiel (whose art harkened back to the Toth strips), would follow.
But despite announcing further plans for New Crusaders – interviews during the original run mentioned them going on to high school, they were used in a framing story for a trade paperback of 1980s stories, Lost Crusade mini-strips would reveal what happened between the 1980s and 2012, and a sequel called Dark Tomorrow was announced – after the first story Archie changed its mind abruptly. Dark Tomorrow did not come out, Lost Crusade limped out three years later, and Red Circle rebranded as Dark Circle, a line of mostly older-readers oriented stories with revamps of Hangman and the Black Hood. And The Fox would be in print, not digital-first.
Reading behind the lines, Archie seems to have got cold feet after mixed feedback from some fans and with the app not working as well as they hoped. In a Comic Book Resources interview for Dark Tomorrow, which was going to be print-first instead of app-first, editorial talked about the art changing to more “realism” as “we've been listening to the reader feedback, and we want to make sure we're addressing their demands”; the high-school work was going to be delayed an issue to allow for more fighting, because “what we felt was that we didn't see a lot of the kids being superheroes in the first arc”.
At the same time, the zombie horror comic Afterlife with Archie was blowing up, and Archie presumably felt comics like this would crack the direct market better. The Black Hood, in which the previous Hood is accidentally killed and replaced by a policeman descending into personal darkness, did get good reviews in its first ‘season’.
Goldwater said when it came for Dark Circle, “we're in it for the long haul. There is no thought from my side at all about throwing in the towel. This is a very important initiative for our company” – but in doing so, indicated the comics themselves weren’t making enough money yet and this was an “investment”. “Obviously at some point we're gonna want to monetize the Dark Circle line to a certain degree, and that doesn't necessarily mean through comic books. I mean if our comic book is a loss leader for a film or a TV series or an animated series or some licensing opportunity, great.”
Despite the good reviews,The Black Hood got a much shorter second ‘season’. Sequels to the critically acclaimed Fox petered out (Haspiel is quoted in MLJ Companion believing his style may not have fit the line), The Hangman only ran briefly, and a revamp of the Shield – as a female hero being reincarnated in the nation’s time of need – would only get a single miniseries. A new version of the Web, a Korean-American teenage girl called Kim Raymond, was going to be written by novelist Dave White and come out in 2016, and was a more straightforward superhero take. The comic never came out.
In 2017, Flynn was back with Mighty Crusaders (with artist Kelsey Shannon), teaming up older MLJ characters with several of the New Crusaders and Dark Circle’s Shield. The intention was to be a “the kind of fun, dramatic, character-driven cape book many fans have been wanting for a long time now”, accessible even if you didn’t know the backstory. This had four issues and then, since then, nothing, despite clear plans for more stories (Flynn told Comic Book Resources he had ideas for two years) and no mention before that this was a mere miniseries. Sales were low, dropping from just over 3000 for #1 to 1,970 for #4 in the North American direct market, and it’s probable that Archie decided to end things after seeing the #1 sales. This is close to the print sales for the later print issues of New Crusaders, but lower than the same writer and artist achieve on other comics.
A few solicits for Archie’s 80th anniversary included comics teaming up the Riverdale characters with random superheroes. These have been delayed by covid-19.
In the Mighty Crusaders trade paperback, Flynn wrote it was a “spiritual successor to New Crusaders rather than a direct sequel… you’re free to take it as canon as you want.” This likely goes to the heart of the Mighty Crusaders: in US superhero comic fandom, they’re a set of characters that you’ve heard of, but are so vaguely defined that you can do anything with them, but also have too small a fanbase to last.
Which means they have not just a number of failed revamps, they have a number of planned that never happened! Next time, we’ll be having a look at some of them – including their ties to the dawn of Image Comics and Watchmen…
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.