Riverdale’s seventh and final season is almost upon us. The series based on the Archie Comics characters have gone in some wild directions throughout its run, with everything from serial killers, cults, the supernatural, and much more. However, their greatest challenge yet may be surviving the 1950s. With the show’s new period setting, you might wonder what the Archie comics were like in this period. This piece will explore what they were like in this decade, what defined them, and how they differed from what came before.
Some expectations should be set first before we go too deep into this. You will be disappointed if you expect the comics to be as crazy as Riverdale. The show takes the Archie Comics characters and dials everything up to eleven. While it honours elements of the comics with some characterisations and nods to its history, it regularly deviates from them too. The result is a show that has been put through a grim and sexy filter, egging itself on to outdo itself with every subsequent season. The comics are tame in comparison, with mostly humour-based stories about relationships, school, social lives, and harmless mischief. These are a lot of fun but might be jarring if Riverdale is your only frame of reference.
Archie Comics has always tried to be a reflection of the period it’s in. Sometimes that’s been about crafting stories about the trends, fads, and crazes of the time. Other times it’s been the fashion. Recently, the publisher introduced new characters that represent different walks of life. While it hasn’t always been perfect, it has defined Archie Comics and helped the characters to continue for more than 80 years and counting.
The Archie franchise began with 1941’s Pep Comics #22. The early days of the comic were defined by World War II, with stories revolving around raising money for war bonds and Betty and Veronica pining over soldiers. When the war wasn’t a factor, many of the stories revolved around school life. For all intents and purposes, the characters were children, with their first appearances skewing them younger than they’re portrayed now. In those early days, the concept of the teenager didn’t exist. In fact, the term didn’t come to be until 1944. You were either a child or an adult.
The latter half of the decade saw the beginnings of post-World War II prosperity. This opened the doors to different kinds of stories as the idea of what teenagers were and what they enjoyed grew. Here we see many classic Archie concepts, such as the love triangle and defining character traits, begin to form and be refined.
The back half of the 1940s also saw a shift in the aesthetics of the comic. Bob Montana would slowly shift the characters from a look grounded in some realism while still incorporating some animated qualities to accommodate the humour to something more recognisable by the end of the decade.
By the time the 1950s rolled around, Archie comics were riding the wave of the cultural shift of how young people were perceived. Teenagers had more autonomy and a bit of cash in their pocket, which they used to have fun on dates or with their friends and to buy things that caught their fancy. The comics of the 1950s shifted towards a focus on teenage fun, whether that be accumulating a tab at Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe, playing pranks on each other, organising social dances, or blowing their money on useless stuff. Even the already established tropes – such as the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle, the Archie/Reggie rivalry, and various comedic misunderstandings – took on new life as the possibilities broadened.
Another defining quality of Archie comics is the acknowledgement of fads, crazes, and anything presently popular. The 1950s saw this increase significantly and become commonplace. Short stories, typically 5-6 pages, saw the Riverdale gang interacting with the subject matter. The tale “Spinner Winner” took advantage of the popularity of plate spinning as an attraction on television talk shows. “Fan Clubbed” attempted to ride the wave of Elvis Presley’s stardom with a knock-off version of The King. There was even the recognition of dead fads. “Circle Game” takes advantage of the decline of the hula hoop, with Jughead tricking Archie and Reggie into buying a heap of hoops they can’t offload. Even cultural movements were not off the table, with 1959’s “Like Real Gone” seeing Archie and Jughead temporarily beatniks. Jumping on these cultural touchpoints (no matter how small) gave the comics a wealth of stories – filling the dozens of tales required each month.
Fashion trends were also reflected in Archie Comics’ stories. The boy’s outfits remained the same – that being said, Jughead’s attire would randomly change for a tale from time to time while still keeping his signature whoopee cap – Betty and Veronica’s outfits were in constant flux. Their attire reflected the latest in youth fashion, with an assortment of dresses, skirts, blouses, and sweaters, throughout the decade. There were many fashion-driven Betty and Veronica tales. “Going Going Gown” is a story of comedic misunderstandings when the girls buy the same dress for a dance. In one that’s more left-of-field, “Coat of Alms” sees Betty roping Jughead into competing on a quiz show where every correct answer he gets wins Betty a new piece of an outfit.
When fashion wasn’t a driver, Betty and Veronica were rarely seen in the same outfit twice. Some of this would’ve been driven by the audience wanting to see them in different looks. Other times, I suspect it might’ve been artist-driven, with the artists wanting more variety in their drawings.
This was also reflected in the inclusion of pin-ups, which saw Betty, Veronica, and occasionally the boys modelling a fashion. These were often included to fill in a spare page. However, they also scratched an itch for readers looking for inspiration when youth fashion became more vibrant and accessible.
In my research, I discovered the following pin-up making fun of the sack dress. As you can see, the pin-ups were not just about inspiration but could also address fashion trends and have a laugh about them.
Archie comics of the 1950s didn’t have the same expansive roster of characters of today. Back then, stories involved the core four – Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead. Reggie was a regular but usually only featured when a tale required a heel or an additional male friend. Others that appeared throughout the decade included Dilton, Moose, Midge (the only significant debut of the 1950s) and adults such as Mr Lodge, Archie’s parents, Mr. Weatherbee, Ms. Grundy, and Pop Tate. Other characters that you may know from Riverdale or the modern product – such as Cheryl, Toni, Chuck, Ethel, and Kevin Keller – were introduced in subsequent decades. You’ll have to check out the final season of Riverdale if you want to see these characters in the context of the 1950s.
While there was a tight-knit of characters, it didn’t stop the Archie franchise from expanding. Alongside the series established in the decade prior, such as Pep (1940), Archie (1942), Laugh Comics (1946), and Archie’s Pal Jughead (1949), were several other titles. Series such as Archie’s Pals ‘n’ Gals (1952), Archie’s Jokebook (1953) and the Archie Giant Series (1954) delivered much of the same but in a revised format. The 1950s also spotlighted other characters, with Betty & Veronica and Reggie getting titles.
There were also explorations into different types of storytelling. Archie’s Mad House (1959) was a title that featured weirder stories featuring the gang, many of which made little sense. This format didn’t last all that long into the 1960s, with it becoming a creature feature affair. Little Archie (1958) portray the characters in their primary school days. The series was defined by cartoonist Bob Bolling, who created many stories in a distinct style. There was also Life With Archie (1958), which contained longer adventure and drama-focused narratives. These titles broadened the scope of the franchise and the first step in showing how malleable it could be – something that would continue to expand in the following decade.
The 1950s was also when the visual identity of the franchise was solidified. As I mentioned earlier, the end of the 1940s saw a hint of the recognisable Archie house style. Bob Montana had been inching away towards this style, starting the 1950s with a style that was rounder in shape and smoother linework. It’s also defined by how Archie Andrews is depicted, which sees him with two beaver-like buck teeth. However, there wasn’t visual uniformity quite yet. Some artists could mimic Bob Montana – artist George Frese occasionally his own approximation of Montana’s style that was uniquely his own – while others were clinging to the more realistic look of the prior decade.
It wasn’t until Dan DeCarlo started doing regular work at Archie Comics that there was a house style. DeCarlo was already an established cartoonist before regularly working at the publisher, with extensive work on Millie The Model for Atlas (the former name of Marvel Comics) – plus Willie Lumpkin, cartoons for The Saturday Evening Post, and much more. He started doing extra work at Archie in the early 1950s but nearly quit when an editor told him to draw like Bob Montana. In an interview with The Trades, DeCarlo elaborated on this: “it’s hard to look at your reference, and then back at your own page. It’s very slow, and very tedious and I didn’t like it too much.” Luckily, the editor told him he could draw any way he liked. DeCarlo would use Montana’s style and refine it into the template for Archie Comics today, defined by tight and clean work, which was still expressive. DeCarlo would go on to be a pillar for the publisher – seen as one of the greatest Archie artists of all time – and worked with the company until he was fired after a dispute over the Josie and Pussycats movie in 2021.
The 1950s was the decade when Archie comics found their identity. The rise of teenage culture in that decade was a boon for the franchise, giving a wealth of new storytelling ideas and the template for what Archie tales could be. A consistent house style also formed, giving it a look and feel that continues decades later and has been mimicked, homaged, and parodied countless times. With all these elements firmly established, it helped set up Archie Comics for their greatest decade, the 1960s, and decades of much-loved stories.
Archie comics from the 1950s have been published in numerous collections and digests. I highly recommend The Best of Archie Americana Volume 1: Golden Age if you’re looking to read some of the best tales from that decade. You can find it at all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, and Amazon/Kindle.