Back in the 60s, very little of the Archie Comics range reached British shores beyond their comedy material and I didn’t even think the MLJ titles, which housed their super-heroes got more than a few issues circulated where I lived, even in black and white reprint. I did temporarily think The Mighty Crusaders looked awfully like The Avengers but that was based off a single issue but still haven’t really had much of a handle on their original source material.
With that in mind, I hope ‘The MLJ Companion’ by Rik Offenberger, Paul Castiglia & Jon B. Cooke was going to enlighten me. Much of its material is drawn from other sources and having them under one cover brings the pieces of the jigsaw together. It did so in spades, drawing together a lot of material, some of which they wrote themselves, and filling a massive gap in my comicbook education.
Like a lot of comicbook companies in the 1940s, the MLJ brand were caught into the super-hero craze started by National Periodicals’ Superman and Batman. I think the biggest surprise was discovering that the Shield preceded Captain America but, as I said, I’m on a learning curve with this company. For the record, the Shield design was by Irv Novick, who went onto bigger things at DC Comics. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon also worked for them for a period, creating the Fly. I should point out that in the 1970s on, various other ‘names’ in their developing popularity period worked for MLJ including Neal Adams and Rich Buckler and with an even longer list when DC Comics leased the characters a couple times over the decades.
This book starts off with three comicbook stories from the 1940s and the graphic execution of certain villains, mostly by the State, makes me think these would have been the kinds of stories Fredric Wertham might have been targeting to keep out of kids’ hands. Mind you, as MLJ’s super-heroes were gone by 1946, as were many super-heroes after World War Two, you would have to question that influence. What kept the company going was a comedy comics series based around Riverdale and a certain Archie Andrews and his pals, but that’s a different story.
Looking at these heroes collectively, with a couple exceptions like the Comet and Steel Sterling, most were just costumed vigilantes with no super-powers. That would change in the 1960s with ‘The Mighty Crusaders’. Reading this section, it clearly becomes obvious that rebranding as ‘Mighty Comics’ and certain emulations, there was an attempt to look like Marvel Comics. Their main writer was Jerry Siegel, who co-created the original Superman, and artist Paul Reinman, who worked for Marvel for a brief time, who could draw and ink. What failed, from reading the various articles here, was not understanding how Stan Lee hit the common nerve (DC Comics had a similar problem) for teens and Siegel ultimately turning out ‘high camp’ which even got promoted that way. When you consider that the Web was now a hen-pecked husband and the second Shield’s alter-ego was always looking for a job, you do have to wonder who they thought their target audience was. Even when Archie Comics took on the Shadow, they dispensed with his hat and scarf and put him in a super-hero costume. Speaking of which, Archie Andrews and his pals also became super-heroes for a while and I finally found out Jughead’s proper name as Forsythe Pendleton Jones III.
The fourth attempt to get their characters out again came in the 1980s with Rich Buckler hired as editor and a lot of known talent brought in on the Red Circle Comics. The overall aim then and in the 1970s was to sell the characters as TV shows, like they did with Archie, although this decade fell simply from poor sales.
When they were alive, artists Gray Morrow and Dick Ayers share something in common in that their answers were ones of few words in their interviews. I should point out that there are a lot of interviews here.
Following through in the book, you have to admire the attempts Archie Comics did every decade or so to resurrect their super-hero characters but often found it at odds with their family friendly comics. DC Comics even licensed their super-heroes on two occasions, the second to merge with the DC Universe and both failed. From my perspective, I tend to think we had too many super-heroes out there and these were just too much and didn’t really offer anything different, let alone doing it better. It also seemed a bit odd after DC Comics’ ‘Crisis On Infinite Earths’ to reduced numbers that they wanted to add another pantheon. The die-hards who grew up on the Crusaders weren’t even their target audience and either continuing their history or restarting them rarely sunk in to the mighty lack of sales.
The fact that Archie Comics have resurrected their super-heroes in yet a new form again this past couple years shows their determination to succeed. It’s still early days and they’ve gone back to the grittier tales when they first started out so things have gone full dark circle (sic).
Probably the oddest interview is with comics expert Jeffrey C. Vaughn who was asked to assess the MLJ brand as a collectable. His answers are so evasive that it could apply to any small comicbook company.
It’s a rather odd state of affairs that despite having a seventy year plus history and a lot of reinvention that the MLJ brand of super-hero has never caught on and look like shadows of DC Comics and Marvel Comics, with the latter’s revolution happening much later. This doesn’t mean that MLJ didn’t have some success. They had a radio show with the Black Hood and some TV animation shows with Archie Andrews but didn’t understand the super-hero market. Even DC Comics realised that they had to change and bring in younger creators in the 1970s. MLJ did eventually but still wanted family appeal forgetting that the kids were changing and growing up and wanted something that they could recognise.
As you can tell from the length of this review, not only did I learn a lot but it gave me a lot to think about as well. Even if you haven’t read any of their titles, there is a lot to learn from this book and you should consider adding it to your reading list.
(pub: TwoMorrows Publishing. 287 page illustrated softcover. Price: $41.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-60549-056-4. Direct from them, you can get it for $29.71 (US))
check out websites: http://www.twomorrows.com/ and http://twomorrows.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=95_71&products_id=1251