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One (more) thing I’ve learned in this world is that the vast majority of people, from the man or woman in the checkout line to the hard core of comics aficionados… can’t tell Archie artists apart, let alone name any of them.
If you scratch deep enough, one name will come up, like pebbles from a fallow field: Dan DeCarlo. I’m reminded of the annual restaurant poll a local alternative weekly used to hold: McDonald’s unfailingly took its category in a landslide, because of its ubiquitous familiarity. And so it is with Archie artists: DeCarlo must be the best because… well, that’s what we’ve always been told.
If you ask me, much of his peers’ work gets attributed to him. For instance, check out our gallery of Bob White covers. That Archie’s Mad House no. 27 cover, in particular…
WOT’s pick for top artist on the Archie totem is handily Samm Schwartz (1920 – 1997). He’s easily the smoothest, most inventive storyteller in the Archie universe. Despite his skill as a cover designer during Archie’s best years (1959-1965, a figure proposed by cartoonist-scholar Seth and worth carving in stone), there were no Schwartz covers chez Archie after 1965.
The likely reason? In ’65, Schwartz was hired away by Wally Wood‘s Tower Comics (by managing editor Harry Shorten, a former Archie writer-editor) to serve as their art director. While there, he conceived Tower’s relatively prolific teen humour line, featuring Tippy Teen, Go-Go and Animal, and Teen-In, often glibly dismissed as “Archie clones“, by people who clearly haven’t read the work. We’ll return to these eventually.
Now comes the clincher: Schwartz in turn hired some of his former Archie colleagues to pitch in (presumably at higher page rates); DeCarlo (a handful of stories in early issues of Tippy Teen), Harry Lucey (a decent batch, actually) and reportedly Bob White (no sign of him, though). But the bulk of the work was done by Schwartz and future Archie artist Doug Crane.
Now the Archie people didn’t like this one bit; it was a clear case of sedition, a threat to their tidy little work camp system. After the industry’s near-collapse in the mid-1950s, there weren’t a lot of options in the tight-knit little club that remained; let’s not forget that even Jack Kirby was driven to such humbling desperation in the early 1960s. It was all too easy to be blackballed. The Goldwater clan, Archie’s reigning dynasty, took careful note of Schwartz’s break for freedom and the names of his accomplices. After Tower called it a day in 1969, Schwartz went to DC for a year, but it didn’t take. He was forced to return to Archie, which certainly suited the publisher since Schwartz’s signature title, Jughead, had been wilting away in his absence.
The terms of his return are unknown… but against all odds, Samm proceeded to create the finest work of his career, pencilling, inking and lettering hundreds of inspired Jughead stories until, well, until he couldn’t any more. But no covers, considered a plum job: these went exclusively to DeCarlo (with an occasional Lucey) and later to versatile mediocrity Stan Goldberg, aping DeCarlo’s style and random design sense*.
To quote his daughter, Joanne Colt, from the introduction of 2011’s The Best of Samm Schwartz (it isn’t, but it’s pretty good): « He drew for Archie until his death on November 13, 1997, my birthday. There was an unfinished story on his drawing board. »
*the way I see it, the difference between a Bob White or a Samm Schwartz cover and a DeCarlo is the difference between a considered, effective layout and the act of pointing a camera at random and snapping the shutter. To be fair to DeCarlo, his girlie cartoons for Martin Goodman’s Humorama were excellent, and his first half-decade at Archie (60-65) was fine… then the company wore him down into a sad hack and the unfortunate protagonist-victim of a cautionary tale.