Goldwater, the Comics Code Authority, and Archie.
With the recent withdrawal of Marvel Comics from the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), it seems likely that this oppressive force of cowardly comstockery is, finally, tottering on its last legs. Now that a major publisher has defected, it can be only a matter of time before others follow. And without the funding from a certain number of publishers, the whole operation can scarcely be imagined to have the wherewithal to continue its repressive regime much longer. And as we gather here in anticipation of the wake, it seems an appropriate moment to consider the dubious record of John Goldwater, the man who claimed to have invented Archie Andrews as well as the CMAA with its enforcement arm, Comics Code Authority. About the latter there is less dispute than about the former. Let's see whether his claims can withstand close scrutiny and the conflicting testimony of contradictory witnesses.
Last winter, I wrote a short biography of Goldwater for Oxford University Press's online American National Biography. What follows is the freshly-polished and energetically embellished remnant of the first draft of that essay, vastly longer than the version they have—and liberally furnished with my own opinions about Archie and Goldwater (opinions more-or-less omitted from the more scholarly, more objective, version at American National Biography online, omitted for want of the sort of inarguable documentary proof that definitive scholarship demands before bandying speculative assertions around, however reasonable those assertions may, upon sober reflection, be; here, I'm including them, sober or not). But before we get to that, an introductory apostrophe:
Since there appeared to be very little written about Goldwater's life, I thought I could find out more by checking with Archie Comics. I assumed they'd have a complete biography which they'd be eager to get into my hands so it could be perpetuated in Oxford University Press's magnum opus of the lives of American's rich and famous. Alas, not so.
When I phoned to ask, I was instructed to make my request in writing. I faxed them the request, and shortly thereafter, I received a phone call from a secretarial personage who informed me that they would not be supplying me with any information about Goldwater. Nothing.
That got my wattles in an uproar, naturally. But, in retrospect, I should not have been surprised. Someone told me that Archie Comics is a hotbed of rival claimants to fame. And since the operation appears, nowadays, to be in the hands of the descendants of one of Goldwater's partners, they probably don't want to do anything to foster Goldwater's claims. Moreover, since I have widely broadcast my not-very-supportive view of their dumping Dan DeCarlo, they might, even, recognize my name (unlikely though that seems to me) and, thinking me a hostile hack writer, elected not to supply me with any ammunition.
In any case, my biographical labors on John Goldwater were performed without any assistance from the official fount of information on Archie Comics. And they were right: I am, as far as their treatment of DeCarlo is concerned, a hostile hack. I also think that Goldwater himself claimed a little more than he was legitimately entitled to at least in regard to the creation of Archie. The bald statement "I created Archie" is not quite the full truth of the matter. He may have had a role in that creation—but not, in all probability, the "prime founder" role he claims for himself in the creation of the CMAA.
Like many who have had a role in the early history of comics and who have survived their contemporaries, Goldwater doubtless exaggerated somewhat his claims to fame. In recounting the events of his early life, for instance, Goldwater customarily recollected various of his romantic adventures with the fairer sex that paralleled Archie's life with Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge and therefore seemed to support the claim that Goldwater had been Archie's creator. By the early 1980s, no one was around anymore who could contradict him. It seemed wonderfully pat. But I contacted Bob Montana's daughter (through their family website), and I was able to incorporate into my version of how Archie was created their version. Here, then, is my unofficial history of John Goldwater, knitting together as many of the known facts and reasonable testimonies as I can—in as charitable and sympathetic a construction as possible with a conspicuous lamination of some likely alternative interpretations.
John Goldwater was born February 14, 1916, in New York, New York, son of Daniel Goldwater and Edna Bogart Goldwater. About that, no dispute. His arrival, however, was (according to Goldwater) accompanied by melodrama enough to be a credit to an aspiring dramatist. According to various sources (for which Goldwater supplied the information), his mother died during childbirth, and the father, overcome by grief, abandoned the child and died soon afterward. Growing up in a foster home, Goldwater attended the High School of Commerce where he developed secretarial skills and some facility as a writer. At seventeen, he hitch-hiked across country, stopping first at Hiawatha, Kansas, where he found a reporting job on the local newspaper. In later years, Goldwater said he was fired because he got into a scrap over a girl with the son of the paper's biggest advertiser. According to Goldwater, girl trouble was prominent in his young working life. Everywhere he went, his life was as complicated as that of Archie Andrews—and all because of girls.
Moving to Kansas City, Missouri, he found a job as secretary to the Administrator of Grand Canyon National Park. At the Park in Arizona, he violated a rule barring males from the female employee housing facility and was fired. Leaving for San Francisco, California, he went to work for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, losing his job again because of his interest in a girl—this time, the secretary of his boss who was also the object of the boss's interest. Remaining in San Francisco, Goldwater worked at a variety of jobs and squired two girls around town, a blonde and a brunette. After about a year, he returned to New York via the Panama Canal, en route becoming involved (again) with two girls in a shipboard romance that went nowhere else.
Back in New York, he worked for various publishers and then became an entrepreneur, buying unsold periodicals, mainly pulp magazines, from publisher Louis H. Silberkleit and exporting them for sale abroad. Observing the success of the Superman character in the infant comic book industry in 1939, he joined with Silberkleit and Maurice Coyne to launch a comic book publishing firm with himself as editor (while continuing as president of Periodicals for Export, Inc.), Silberkleit as publisher, and Coyne as bookkeeper.
MLJ Comics (named with the first-name initials of the partners) produced its first comic book, Blue Ribbon Comics, with a cover date of November 1939. Top-Notch Comics followed in December, then Pep Comics in January 1940, and Zip Comics in February. These titles featured a cast of heroic characters similar to those in other comic books of the period—The Shield (the first patriotic comic book superhero), The Black Hood, Steel Sterling, Mr. Justice, The Comet, The Rocket, Captain Valor, Kardak the Mystic Magician, Swift of the Secret Service, and so on. None of the MLJ costumed crime fighters achieved the success enjoyed by rival publishers with Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, and Captain America. And then in late 1941, MLJ published the first story about the character who would make the company's fortune. Archie Andrews, the irrepressible freckle-faced carrot-topped teenager, debuted in the back pages of Pep Comics with issue No. 22, and, almost simultaneously, in Jackpot Comics No. 4, both titles dated December 1941.
Drawn by cartoonist Bob Montana, Archie quickly became the most popular character in the MLJ line-up and would eventually become the archetypal American teenager. Within a year, he was starring in his own comic book title, and on May 31, 1943, the radio program, "The Adventures of Archie Andrews," began (to continue, on different networks, until September 1953). A newspaper comic strip version, produced by Montana, started February 4, 1946 and ran through the rest of the century and into the next. In 1946, the comic book company officially became Archie Comics Publications. Archie subsequently appeared in a television animated cartoon series (1969-77) and in two live-action television movies. For a brief time in the 1970s, the character lent his name to a chain of restaurants.
In early 1950s, as the nation experienced an increase in juvenile crime, an assortment of critics, psychiatric and literary and political, charged that comic book stories bred youthful miscreants. Alarmed as the critics appeared to enlist greater and greater public support (particularly in governmental bodies with the power to produce controlling legislation), comic book publishers formed in 1954 an association to censor their product of objectionable content. The Comics Magazine Association of America was incorporated in September 1954 with Goldwater as President. "I was its prime founder," Goldwater said. "Its purpose was to adopt a code of ethics to eliminate editorial and advertising material which was inimical to the best interests of the comic book industry as well as its readers. I . . . succeeded in cooperation with industry leaders to quell the uproar and eliminate legislation which it is said could have put the comics industry in dire straits if not out of business altogether" (quoted in Mary Smith's The Best of Betty and Veronica Summer Fun, p. 9).
The CMAA's chief function was to review in advance of publication every page of every comic book produced by its member publishers to assure that all comic books obeyed the Comics Code. Goldwater was one of the principal authors of the Code, which consisted of forty-one prohibitions concerning the portrayal of crime, violence, religion, sex, horror, nudity, and the like in both editorial and advertising pages. ("No unique or unusual methods of concealing weapons shall be shown"; "Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.") Writing of the creation and history of the CMAA later in his book, Americana in Four Colors (1964), Goldwater said: "Taken together, these provisions constitute the most severe set of principles for any communications media in use today, restricting the use of many types of material permitted by the motion picture code and the codes for the television and radio industries."
The day-to-day enforcement of the Code was performed by the Comics Code Authority, a panel of reviewers under the direction of a full-time paid administrator. Comic books that passed the review carried the CMAA Seal of Approval on their covers. The Comics Code soon drove out of the industry several comic book publishers whose product could not pass the review and still retain its essential appeal. (The most celebrated of these was EC Comics, which had inaugurated an industry-wide trend of horror comic books. Bill Gaines, EC's publisher, more than once rather strenuously suggested that it was to put EC Comics out of business, more than any other motive, that inspired Goldwater, who was, if we are to judge from Gaines' remark, the prime mover that he claimed he was.) Goldwater served as CMAA president for twenty-five years until he voluntarily relinquished the office, whereupon the board of directors created the position of Chairman of the Board, in which capacity Goldwater served for several years.
Goldwater married twice, the second time to Gloria Freidrun, with whom he had two children. His son from his first marriage, Richard, became an executive in Archie Comics. In addition to his involvement in the comic book industry, Goldwater was national commissioner of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, president of the New York Society for the Deaf, and Past Master of the Masonic Fraternity. In 1971, Archie Comics went public, but Goldwater's son bought the company back in 1983 and installed his father as Honorary Chairman, a role he filled until he died of a heart attack at his home in Manhattan, February 26, 1999.
Although the question of who created Archie is clouded by rival claims from Montana and Goldwater, it may be that both contributed to the conception of the character that became the cornerstone of the publishing company. In histories of Archie Comics, Goldwater is credited with inventing the characters and Montana with envisioning them. Goldwater usually pointed to his experiences in Hiawatha, Kansas, as the foundation for his vision of teenage life: as reporter for the local paper, he covered the high school athletic contests, which, in Hiawatha, were among the chief entertainments of the citizenry. Montana, on the other hand, points to his high school career at Haverhill, Massachusetts, where he encountered many people who later became characters in Archie. And the Thinker statue outside Archie's Riverdale High School is a direct borrowing from Haverhill High.
Goldwater says the "catalyst" for Archie was Superman. "Archie was created," he told Mary Smith, "as the antithesis to Superman—ordinary believable people with a background of humor instead of superheroes with powers beyond that of any normal being. Innumerable sleepless nights, dreaming and writing and rewriting characters that could catch the public's fancy as Superman had was not just an 'idea' but a conscious appraisal of my experiences in the Middle West, California, and elsewhere. I had gone to school with a boy named Archie who was always in trouble with girls, parents, at school, etc."
This notion seems at pretty severe odds with the usual supposition (mine, and I'm not alone) that Archie was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of such teenage heroes as Andy Hardy in the movies and Henry Aldridge on radio. Still, MLJ hadn't had any success with the superhero genre, so Goldwater might well have been looking into other more ordinary crannies for inspiration.
To suppose, for the nonce, that in this dispute, as in most such contests, each side has possession of a part of the truth, we can construct a situation that gives both sides credit for some part of the creation. Perhaps it went something like this: Montana (according to his daughter quoting her mother) had been sketching ideas for a teenage comic strip for some years before he began freelancing with MLJ Comics in 1941. He presented his idea for a strip about four teenage boys to Goldwater, who was looking for a feature about teenagers (probably inspired, as I say, by the popularity of Andy Hardy and Henry Aldrich). Goldwater then suggested that the cast be reduced to two boys, Archie and Jughead (Forsythe P. Jones), and, ostensibly drawing upon his own youthful adventures in the West with the opposing sex, he directed Montana to add a romantic interest, who was Betty Cooper. Vic Bloom reportedly wrote the first story, perhaps guided somewhat by the Popular Comics character, Wally Williams, who had a sidekick named Jughead. (Ron Goulart told me that Wally Williams was written by a Vic Boni, who, he supposes, could have been Bloom writing under another name.) (Or vice versa.)
Veronica was missing from the initial appearances of the feature, but subsequently, after the first or second story, we may suppose that Goldwater recommended that Archie's love-life be complicated by a rival to Betty (again, as Goldwater implied, relying upon his memories of his own escapades with blondes and brunettes in tandem). This was Veronica Lodge, a dark-haired vamp in contrast to Betty's blonde wholesomeness. With the arrival of Veronica in April 1942, the stage was set for what became the feature's chief plot mechanism—the competition between the two girls for Archie's favors, a canny reversal of the traditional competition in which two men vie for one woman. (The sort of reversed configuration that Goldwater—again according to Goldwater—had apparently found himself in frequently. Known out West, he says, as "Broadway" because of his New York origins, he seemingly regularly attracted the affections of at least two girls at the same time.) In the comics, Archie complicated the reversal by not being able to make up his mind which of the girls he desired most.
Maybe, however, it was nothing like this. I asked around in various places to find out if any living witnesses could be found who recalled the creation of Archie and company. Journalist and comics historian (and writer of the Annie comic strip) Jay Maeder kept my request in mind and was able, recently, to provide the following:
Met a gent named Joe Edwards at a cartoonist function yesterday, and, as he turned out to be a very early MLJ guy who said he'd been around at Archie's creation, I picked his brain a little. And he sez: One day he and Bob Montana were called in by John Goldwater and instructed to whip up something new, market-wise, something totally unlike all the costumed-superhero stuff flooding the stands. Whereupon he and Montana sat down and created Archie and the whole cast of characters. This was the entire sum and substance of Goldwater's contribution. In short, Goldwater had nothing to do with it. Not only did he not specify an Archie-like character, he never even specified teenage humor. All he wanted was non-superhero.
RE the story Goldwater told me about his having hitchhiked around the country and gotten into some small-town trouble over the local Indian babes, this ostensibly being the genesis of Reggie: Edwards says he's heard that story many, many times, and it's a total crock. How self-serving Edwards' own version might be, I can't say. He didn't seem to be a braggart or a blusterer (unlike JG, for example), and his Bails listing supports the career history he gave me. Anyway, for what it's worth, here's a primary-source reminiscence for ya. End of Jay's report.
RCH again: The Maeder-Edwards account fits somewhat with another Goldwater version (the one in which he was inspired by Superman to find something absolutely different). And I'm inclined to believe Edwards on Jay's recommendation. It's possible to incorporate the Montana family contention into this version, too: although Edwards says he and Montana, in effect, jointly invented the Archie ensemble, he may not have known that Montana had been toying around with teenage characters for some years; so when the opportunity presented itself in conference with Edwards, Montana simply pulled his notions off the shelf and offered them. It may have been Edwards (not Goldwater) who suggested dropping two of the teenage foursome that Montana had originally envisioned. In fact, perhaps we could safely substitute Edwards' name for Goldwater's throughout the narrative of Archie's conception. In the last analysis, I favor Edwards' version because Goldwater's seems so self-aggrandizing, so typical of a survivor: because no one can any longer deny his assertions, the survivor, however marginal his actual participation in the events being turned into official archives, feels free to claim all sorts of achievements, thereby elevating his role in history. Highly suspicious. Maybe true, but still suspicious.
By the mid-1950s, most teenagers in comics had faded away, leaving Archie as the nation's perennial adolescent, and his high school adventures, laced with romantic frustration as well as simple juvenile pranksterism, embodied in popular culture a widely accepted notion of teenage life for generations thereafter. Montana left MLJ Comics in late 1942 for World War II military service, and when he returned to civilian life in 1946, it was deemed time to introduced Archie to newspaper readers and Montana was given the job. While Montana was solely responsible for the newspaper comic strip version of Archie until his death in 1975, Goldwater continued to oversee the operation of Archie's fate in an ever-lengthening list of teenage comic book titles from Archie Comics.
Goldwater was in charge in December 1961 when Harvey Kurtzman published a satiric attack on the Playboy life style in Help!, the humor magazine he launched in the wake of the failed Trump (which he had left Mad to found in 1956). The story was part of a series in which Kurtzman starred a character named Goodman Beaver who encountered the evils of American society in the manner of Voltaire's naive innocent, Candide. In order to hone his satire on the Playboy life with ludicrous contrast, Kurtzman (aided and abetted by Willie Elder on the artwork) deployed a supporting cast of characters that looked remarkably like Archie and his Riverdale cohorts but behaved like shameless hedonists, chasing relentlessly after booze, broads, and bon temps galore. The Goldwater Gang took umbrage at this high-handed appropriation of its flagship characters. On December 6, 1961, James Warren, publisher of Help!, received a letter accusing him of copyright infringement and demanding that all issues of the offending magazine be removed from the nation's newsstands (an impossibility). The contending parties settled out-of-court: Warren paid Archie Comics $1,000 and agreed to publish an apology in the magazine; and Archie gave up the fight. For the moment.
But not for long. Shortly thereafter, Kurtzman and Elder arranged with MacFadden-Bartell Books to publish a volume reprinting their Goodman Beaver stories. Elder modified the appearance of the Archie-like characters so that, while they still suggested their prototypes, they weren't identical copies as they had been in their first incarnation in Help! Archie again took to its legal guns, and, again, it was settled out-of-court: this time, Kurtzman and Elder signed over to Archie Comics all rights to their lampoon story, effectively giving up possession of their own creation. And so when Denis Kitchen undertook in 1983 to publish the Goodman Beaver stories again in a definitive edition, he had to ask Archie's permission to use the Playboy satire. Archie denied permission.
Oddly, the Goldwater Gang seems to have been so completely humorless as to fail to understand that the object of the satire was Playboy, not Archie Comics. Even odder, when Kurtzman had specifically ridiculed the Archie universe in Mad Comics, Goldwater and his minions did nothing. No objection at all. And that satire has been reprinted in paperback re-issues frequently since it originally appeared in the June 1954 issue of Mad Comics. Had Kurtzman and Warren gone to court over the first objection that Archie Comics made to the parody, they most certainly would have won the case under the usual freedom of speech banner of the First Amendment. But once Kurtzman had given Archie possession of the material, he'd given up his freedom to speak in the form of this parody.
This episode coupled with what Goldwater says so proudly about his role in the formation of the CMAA seems ample evidence of what some might regard as a rather stiff-necked self-righteousness. Not the sort of guy, really, that can be imagined as inventing the prank-ridden world of Archie Andrews. Well, not readily imagined in that role. How actively Goldwater participated in suppressing the Kurtzman-Elder opus we cannot say. He may have had nothing to do with it. But he will be remembered for it anyway--just as he is likely to be more remembered for his pivotal part in the CMAA than for his participation in the life of Archie Andrews. And that ain't all bad. Although the CMAA was blamed for stifling the growth and development of the comic book as an art form, the creation of the Code may have forestalled the passage of stringent laws regulating the industry. Who can say for sure? And now the entire edifice seems likely to crumble to pieces. And a good thing, too.
For more about the founding and fate of EC Comics (not to mention the pervasive role of Harvey Kurtzman in the artistic development of the medium), I refer you, shamelessly, to a book of mine called The Art of the Comic Book, an aesthetic history of the art form; for more about the book, click here.