Appearing as a part of “The Library of American Comics,” Archie’s Sunday Finest (IDW) is a handsomely packaged selection of Sunday color pages from the strip’s first years. After initially debuting in comic books five years earlier, the enduring teen comic has had a strong run as a newspaper strip as well, starting in 1946. All the primary elements of the Riverdale Saga were in place by the time cartoonist Bob Montana started drawing gags for the McClure Newspaper Syndicate, though a few of the characters would be visually tweaked over the years.
The main character to undergo a bit of smoothing out is our title hero, Archie Andrews, who as presented in the earlier Sundays as buck-toothed and slightly more goofy looking. (“Why don’t you dress like an Easter rabbit?” Jughead notes early on. “You’ve got the teeth for it!”) Even as a kid reading the comics books in the late fifties, I remember wondering how a guy like Archie managed to snag the attentions of two high school babes like Betty and Veronica—looking at him in the 1946 funnies, it’s an even bigger puzzle.
The central components of the series—the triangle between Archie, blond Betty Cooper and brunette Veronica Lodge; our hero’s friendship with the asexual Jughead Jones; his rivalry with slick-haired Reggie Mantle—are already established in the strip, though Reggie seems to receive less attention than he does in the comics books. Whether this is a matter of selection by editor Dean Mullaney or a reflection of the snarky Reggie’s lesser status in the early years is unclear.
It’s just as likely that Reggie’s minor role in the early years is due to the fact that he isn’t all that necessary. Archie doesn’t really need an antagonist: he’s his own worst enemy. Many of the Sundays lead to our hero either getting black-eyed or facing a pissed-off Riverdale-ian (in one, we even see an angry Jughead preparing to dunk Archie in a barrel of wet cement). Despite his propensity for bringing calamity on his friends and adult authority figures like rotund high school principal Mr. Weatherbee, Archie is essentially a good-hearted sort, which may be a key to his appeal with both Betty and Veronica.
It doesn’t explain why both he and the equally clumsy Jughead keep getting invited to swanky soirees at the Lodge estate, though, as the results prove as deadly as the Three Stooges’ adventures among the “hoi polloi.” One Sunday sequence even revolves on a gag that I’m pretty sure the Stooges did first: Jughead wreaking havoc at a Lodge party when he wears a tuxedo that originally belonged to a magician.
But if the gags aren’t always as fresh as they once might’ve been, Montana’s art remains a treat. If Archie initially seems a bit rabbity and Jughead a bit too reminiscent of Bowery Boy Huntz Hall, the look of forties era Riverdale is evergreen. Its two female leads remain pristine all-American pin-up gals, even if Betty’s hair does seem a mite ginger-y in the first couple Sundays. Montana’s skill with expressions saves more than one lesser gag, while the vibrantly reproduced color in IDW’s reprint definitely gets you longing for the days when newspaper comics were presented on the page with respect.
For many readers, the world of Archie and the gang is one of homespun small-town values, and while it’s true that the comics were initially inspired by the Andy Hardy movies, occasional elements of comic subversiveness sneak into the Sundays. In addition to the class-based Lodge party kerfuffles, there are two strips devoted to Archie’s dad and his fears of losing all his money–a very real worry for a post-war audience that still recalled the Great Depression – along with several moments where different male cast members run afoul of the law. So it went in the world of America’s Typical Teenager.