Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Booksteve Reviews: Archie's Sunday Finest

I first discovered Archie Andrews in comic books when my cousin showed me some 1966 copies of LIFE WITH ARCHIE circa 1968. I had at least some familiarity with the character and his friends before that, however, courtesy of Bob Montana's long-running newspaper comic strip version.

For last year's history of Archie Comics--ARCHIE: A CELEBRATION OF AMERICA'S FAVORITE TEENAGERS--I researched and wrote the chapter on Bob Montana. After I wrote it (but before it came out) IDW published their collection of the artist's first few years of the daily strip which went on to win the Eisner Award! I got it as a Christmas gift from my wife in 2010.

This year, Craig Yoe's book--the one I helped write--is up for an Eisner Award itself! And IDW has just released its follow-up Bob Montana book-- a collection of the early years of the ARCHIE Sunday strips in full color!

Thanks to the good folks at IDW, I have on hand a review copy of the new book and I pronounce it--GREAT!

There was just something about the Sunday funnies in those days. They were bigger, more colorful, better drawn and somehow looked and felt more respectable than their comic book cousins or than even modern newspaper strips.

And the artists themselves got more respect! Successful cartoonists of the Golden Age were well-paid, well-respected and often became quite the celebrity to the public at large. Once Bob Montana started the ARCHIE newspaper strip, it was considered "separate but equal" to the comic book version. He never looked back. In a way, his--as co-creator--is a more authentic vision of the Riverdale gang. A couple of folks interviewed for the Archie history book pointed out that it was always a big deal when Montana made his annual pilgrimage to the Archie offices (usually for the Christmas party). Even for folks now thought of as celebs by comics aficionados, meeting Montana was meeting a STAR!

ARCHIE'S SUNDAY FINEST starts with the seemingly required introduction--in this case a more detailed piece on Bob than I had room for in the big history. It all seemed so familiar to me but if you hadn't heard it, it's well done and a more fascinating story than one might expect from a cartoonist bio.

Then we get to the meat of the matter: more than 150 beautifully drawn, full-color Sunday comic strips reprinted in large size and covering the earliest years of the strip in the late forties. Without the continuity of the early daily strips, the first thing the reader notices is that the Sundays are akin to pages from ARCHIE'S JOKE BOOK, only with more humor per page and generally funnier punchlines.

As you might expect, everyone is present--Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica, Reggie, Miss Grundy, Mr, Weatherbee and even prototypical versions of some of the later Archie gang like Dilton. Something that adds to these strips now is the warm familiarity of the cast, at the time still relatively new to readers. Veronica is a bit more shallow than she is later on, Betty a bit more scheming, but they're all recognizable. In a way, this is a very pure version of Archie and friends as we have yet to have decades of changing with the latest fads.

The real star here, though, is Bob Montana himself. With most of his work long unavailable for reevaluation, Montana's name has settled into being a trivia question, the answer to "Name the co-creator of ARCHIE."ARCHIE'S SUNDAY FINEST, along with last year's dailies collection and, to some extent, the Eisner-nominated Archie history, have given us some basis to revisit his work...and it's good!

As with many of the great strips, one can simply savor the detail that went into the art in each panel. As is traditional, in spite of their ages, Archie's girls are drawn to be very attractive. Montana's facial expressions go a long way toward making the jokes--some of which are admittedly labored--seem even funnier.

Overall, ARCHIE'S SUNDAY FINEST works as a fun and funny book but works even better as an art book, yet another tribute to one of the great unsung cartoonists of the Golden Age of comic strip art, Bob Montana. Can't wait to see more volumes, daily and Sunday!


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